John Mauceri, the respected conductor of classical, pops and Broadway music, wields the baton over Pittsburgh Opera's revival of composer Kurt Weill and lyricist Langston Hughes' Street Scene, Feb. 16-24 at the Byham Theatre in Pittsburgh.
Mauceri is not new to the material. A Weill scholar, he musical-directed the complete recording of this unique so-called "American opera" for the London label, with the Scottish Opera Orchestra and Chorus. Samuel Ramey and Josephine Barstow were heard on the two disc set, along with Jerry Hadley and Angelina Réaux. The hybrid show, filled with arias, jazz, ensemble pieces, children's songs and underscoring, premiered on Broadway in 1946. "What Good Would the Moon Be?" and "Lonely House" may be the score's best known pieces, and the ambitious aria, "Somehow I Never Could Believe."
Drawn from Elmer Rice's 1929 play of the same name, with book credited to Rice, Street Scene shows a cross-section of urban characters — hopeful immigrants, bigoted neighbors, poor families, angry socialists, romantic students — in and around a New York City tenement during a heat wave. The piece focuses on housewife Anna Maurrant, her brutish husband, their daughter and son. Anna, trapped in her loveless life, finds comfort with the milkman, with tragic results that impact the community.
The original play did not contain any African American characters, an element added to the libretto in 1946 by black poet Langston Hughes (whose centennial is being celebrated this year). Mauceri told Playbill On-Line that Hughes' involvement is one of the reasons the show is so groundbreaking.
"One of the most significant things about the work is that Weill went to a black poet to put the words of the play into poetry," Mauceri told Playbill On-Line, in between rehearsals. "I don't believe ever in the history of Broadway had a black man put words into the mouths of white characters. It's always the other way around. In Show Boat or Porgy and Bess or Bloomer Girl, in any of these shows where there are important black characters, those words are written by white people. It's precedent-making, it's historically right on target about the kind of democratic view of Kurt Weill. He was an emigre, a refugee, becoming more American than most Americans. He was completely color-blind." Mauceri said that to choose a play with a housewife as the central character is "the other political statement."
"Most operas, indeed most musicals, would not have a housewife as a central character," Mauceri said. "If you think of everyone's favorite musicals or operas, you have an Ethiopian princess, or a Chinese princess, or you're in exotic places like Siam or the South Pacific, you're along the Mississippi. Not a housewife with a dirty apron in the middle of a heat wave!"
The Pittsburgh Opera staging is directed by Sandra Sachwitz Bernhard. The company includes soprano Karen Huffstodt as Anna Maurrant, tenor Tracey Welborn as Sam Kaplan, bass-baritone Dean Ely as Frank Maurrant, Pittsburgh resident Mimi Lerner as Emma Jones and soprano Yvonne Gonzales as Rose Maurrant.
The Pittsburgh Opera uses a scenic design from Minnesota Opera.
Performances play 8 PM Feb. 16, 7 PM Feb 19, 8 PM Feb. 22 and 2 PM Feb. 24. There is a special student matinee Feb. 21.
This is the first Pittsburgh Opera mainstage opera to be presented at the Byham Theater, 101 Sixth Street, downtown Pittsburgh. Tickets range $30-$85. For information, call (412) 456 6666 or visit www.pghopera.org. For a complete discography of John Mauceri's theatre-related recordings, visit www.johnmauceri.com.
— By Kenneth Jones