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Opera Preview: New setting for Pittsburgh Opera

Friday, February 15, 2002

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic

When the Pittsburgh Opera made the decision to expand its season to five productions this year and beyond, there was certainly some discussion about what it would be.

Maybe five minutes' worth.

Pittsburgh Opera
'Street Scene'

Where: Byham Theater, Downtown.

When: Sat. 8 p.m.; Feb. 19, 7 p.m.; Feb. 22, 8 p.m.; Feb. 24, 2 p.m.

Tickets: $16-$95. 412-456-6666.


That's because music director John Mauceri had the perfect opera in mind: Kurt Weill's "Street Scene."

Why? Let us count the ways.

Mauceri is one of the world's experts on this opera. He's directed it several times and has made an acclaimed recording of it.

"I first saw 'Street Scene' when I was in high school in 1961, which was only 10 years after Weill had died," he says. "It is the work that I try to bring to every opera company I am music director of."

When "Street Scene" opens tomorrow it will be the first time the Pittsburgh Opera has performed a work by Weill, and only the second time it has produced a work with an English libretto. But that's nothing new to Mauceri. Everywhere he's taken the opera, it has been a first.

"I brought it to Scottish Opera, which was the first time it had been done professionally in the United Kingdom, and to Lisbon, where it was the first time it was ever done in Portugal," says Mauceri. The same was true of Italy.

What especially excites Mauceri is the venue for the production. "I am really happy to bring 'Street Scene' to the Byham, a smaller space for which it was written," he says. The Byham is roughly half the size of the Opera's main performing space, the Benedum, bringing it much closer to New York's Adelphi Theater, where "Street Scene" opened in 1947.

"If you can't see the reaction of the characters to one another, you lose much of the inherent drama," says Kim Kowalke, president of the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music. "The closer you can get to the characters is better, unlike most opera where you don't necessarily want to see them too closely. Most opera is meant to be larger than life, but if you want 'Street Scene' to be real, you don't want to seem exaggerated."

The plot and larger social message of "Street Scene" is more accessible than the gods, heroes and ultra-eccentric personalities of most operas. "While Strauss was writing about a magic kingdom and Puccini had given us a Chinese princess, Weill put a housewife with dirty apron as the central character," says Mauceri. "It is one of the fundamental works of the 20th century for theater because it deals with urban life, racism, dysfunctional families and the struggle to exist and follow a dream of happiness."

Set in a tenement block in New York City, the story illustrates immigrant and city life while telling a tragic tale of jealousy and violence. It was the first of the Broadway operas, and most critics of the time called it superior to Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess."

Weill set his sights high for the opera. "He wanted to represent the melting pot," says Mauceri. "It is one of the first plays representing this culture." Weill himself was an immigrant, having fled Germany in the '30s. Musically, Weill used American idioms such as bebop and blues along with operatic forms. For the libretto, he called upon author Langston Hughes.

"[Before that] I think in the history of the lyric stage, never has a black man provided words for white people to sing on the stage," says Mauceri. "Every time you see a black man on stage, whether it is Amonasro in 'Aida,' or Joe in 'Showboat,' or Porgy in 'Porgy and Bess,' those words were provided for that black person by a white person. But when you hear Sam Kaplan and Anna Maurrant in 'Street Scene,' these are white people singing words invented for them by a black man. That gives you an idea of the democratic embrace of the world that Kurt Weill had."

Mauceri believes Weill was one of the 10 most important composers of the 20th century, "because his life was in the very center of a fundamental tragedy in Western culture, World War II, and because he triumphed over it."

Mauceri's expectations of this current production rival Weill's. "Wherever I do 'Street Scene,' the effect is always the same: the audience is completely overwhelmed," says Mauceri. "I think this will be the best 'Street Scene' I have ever done."

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