A community of artists comes together to create Street Scene
Friday, February 7, 2014
Friday, February 7, 2014
From UMass Theater Department:
Street Scene is the most influential show you’ve never heard of. This 1947 artistic hybrid, the result of an unlikely collaboration among playwright Elmer Rice, poet Langston Hughes and composer Kurt Weill, left a huge mark on musical theater, with everyone from Cole Porter to Stephen Sondheim taking inspiration from its innovations.
And just as three very different men came together to create this American opera about life in a run-down Manhattan tenement, a diverse group of artists is collaborating to mount a mammoth production with a three story set, a forty-person cast and a thirty-piece orchestra, opening Feb. 21 in the Rand Theater at UMass. The piece is a co-production of UMass Theater and Five College Opera.
“It’s a coming together of over 90 collaborators, from different disciplines, across different campuses, to create a story about a multi-ethnic community and the glue that holds it together and rips it apart,” said Gina Kaufmann, a UMass Theater faculty member who is the opera’s director.
The cast includes John Cheek, a world-class bass-baritone singer who has sung at the White House and appeared at the Metropolitan opera more than 350 times, and soprano Dana Schnitzer, a UMass alumna and faculty member who also serves as Artistic Director of MetroWest Opera in Boston. Cheek and Schnitzer serve as mentors to several generations of cast members across a wide range of experience, from an 8-year-old making her opera debut to students from the Five Colleges who are looking toward music or theater careers, and a number of experienced performers from across the Pioneer Valley.
The characters of Street Scene are thrown together by circumstance in the run-down tenement in a multi-ethnic, working class Manhattan neighborhood during two stifling summer days in 1946. The story, by turns joyful, playful, and melancholy, centers around a romance between a Jewish and a gentile teenager and on the consequences of a mother’s extramarital affair and a father’s rage, but it is the rich undertones of longing and the layered relationships amid the tenement residents that bring the complex world of Street Scene to life. The story is in part about the limits of dreams and aspirations as a younger generation struggles to forge a path different from its parents’.
The music reflects the diversity of the community from which it springs. With elements that encompass classical music forms, spoken word, the jazz esthetic, and even film noir orchestrations, this piece stretches the art of opera in fascinating directions. Some of the music underscores dance numbers influenced by the jitterbug, the charleston, and praise dancing from the Black churches of the day.
“It uses all of these different musical styles that match the characters,” said Street Scene musical director Mark Swanson, an Amherst College music professor. The elements create a musical collage to shape the identity of the piece.
“It’s a diverse group finding a common language,” Swanson said. He was talking about the singers and the production team, but he could just as well have been talking about Weill, Rice and Hughes and the characters they bring to life.
Street Scene is a co-production of the Department of Theater and Five College Opera.
This production is made possible in part by the Kurt Weill Foundation.