The 2012-2013 season has no special significance for Kurt Weill, the German-American composer of “September Song,” “Speak Low” and “Mack the Knife.” But it’s a landmark year for the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM).
Last month, the Kurt Weill Foundation (KWF) announced a major grant sponsoring CCM’s musical theater and opera season, the first such award in the foundation’s history.
And as CCM prepares to stage Weill’s “American opera” Street Scene, Robin Guarino, head of CCM’s opera department, still shakes her head in disbelief.
It was a coincidence that CCM planned to produce both Street Scene and Threepenny Opera in the same season. Production rights must be cleared through the KWF and when Guarino was on the phone with Carolyn Weber, KWF’S Director of Music, she said “I want to encourage you to apply for two grants for these shows and one of them is due in two weeks.”
Another fortunate coincidence is the number of Weill authorities on the CCM faculty, notably musicologist bruce mcclung, who has written a book and major articles on Weill and his musicals.
“I mentioned to Kim Kowalke, president of the KWF, that we were doing both productions,” mcclung says, “and he suggested we make it into a festival spread out over the year.”
The festival began last month with two sold-out cabaret evenings featuring songs reflecting the relationship between Weill and his wife and muse, Lotte Lenya. In addition to Street Scene and Threepenny Opera, CCM will present master classes, collaborative concerts and a lecture series that includes Kowalke and musicologist Howard Pollack.
Kurt Weill (1900-1950) was a prolific composer best known for his theatrical works. Born in Germany, Weill fled the Nazi-run country in 1933 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1935. He embraced America enthusiastically, became a citizen and never looked back.
Weill also had an ear for language. He refused to speak German and learned English and American idioms with uncanny facility.
“When he escaped to Paris in 1933, he wrote French chansons like ‘Youkali’ and you think it’s by a French composer,” mcclung comments.
“Then he comes to America and within three years he writes ‘September Song,’ (which has) been covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Lou Reed.”
In Europe, Weill collaborated with Bertolt Brecht to create classics in 20th century musical theater, most notably his 1928 masterpiece, The Threepenny Opera. He forged equally memorable partnerships with Ira Gershwin, Ogden Nash, Alan Jay Lerner and Langston Hughes.
After a string of successes in theater, Weill was eager to create what he later described as a new “American opera-form” that would “integrate drama and music, spoken word, song and movement.” He told the New York Sun in 1940 that he wanted to craft something that would “remain a part of American theater. More than anything else, I want to have a part in that development.”
Elmer Rice’s 1930 play Street Scene was the ideal vehicle, a sprawling, ultimately tragic story set in a crowded urban neighborhood populated by immigrant families. Weill recruited African-American poet Langston Hughes as lyricist. After major revisions, Street Scene opened on Broadway in 1947, winning the first Tony Award for original score.
“I couldn’t believe that it had never been done at CCM,” Guarino says, “so when we looked for a work to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Conservatory joining UC, we kept coming back to it.”
One reason may be the sheer logistics involved.
“The cast is huge — 70 performers, including 35 named roles, plus a chorus and a large group of children,” mcclung says.
Director Steven Goldstein adds that each cast member is vital, saying, “There are speaking roles that are supporting parts for sure, but they are so integral to the story.”
Most of the leading roles are sung by opera students, but the cast includes students studying musical theater, drama and dance.
“It’s great to see them react together,” says Goldstein, noting how much students appreciate each other’s talents.
Weill and Hughes decided not to make Street Scene through-sung, with no spoken dialogue (like much opera), because it would not have sounded American. Much of the dialogue is spoken over musical cues, which serves to strengthen the spoken words, says Goldstein.
“Like a great play, there’s strong unity of action,” he says. “Everything takes place on the sidewalk in front of the tenement building. Over two hot summer days, we see a neighborhood and the conflicts real people face.”
There’s the abusive Frank Maurrant, who longs for the higher moral standards and values of the past, his long-suffering wife Anna and their daughter Rose and families of Italians, African Americans, Swedes and Eastern European Jews. Young Sam Kaplan is in love with Rose, while Anna has an affair with the milkman. Characters seen and unseen have their own stories underscoring the turbulent, fractious environment they inhabit.
“I’m blown away by the beauty of the music,” says Goldstein, who has performed the role of Sam. “We want to take the audience on an emotional journey. Sam is so committed to saving the situation and just can’t. Rose realizes that she can’t go along with Sam’s dream because there are too many things in the way. That’s still very valid today.”
Tensions in American society were simmering when Street Scene opened in 1947.
“It was the year Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and the first House Un-American Activities hearings,” Goldstein notes. “What Frank Maurrant says are the same arguments we hear today.”
Kurt Weill was a pioneer of creating a more theatrical form of opera and his work remains “timely and relevant,” mcclung says.
That timelessness, adds Robin Guarino, is all about truth.
“There’s something about Weill’s music that forces singers to break open their hearts,” she says. “You can’t fake it.”
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