Opera North is kicking off its spring season with the rarely-staged Kurt Weill opera Street Scene, which opens at Leeds Grand Theatre next month.
First performed on Broadway in 1947, it won Best Original Score at the very first Tony awards that year. Weill himself considered the work to be his masterpiece and it is certainly a rich, layered and complex work. Combining operatic arias with jazz and blues influences, plus elements of golden-age musical theatre (including an extended song-and-dance sequence) it can quite legitimately be described as one of a kind. “It is unlike anything else, really,” says director Matthew Eberhardt.
“It was adapted from a 1920s play by Elmer Rice and the idea is that it holds up a mirror to life, showing life in its full, complex nature. So there are people of different religions and backgrounds, several family groups and a huge range of characters. A lot of them come from different European countries and have emigrated to America. There are people of Swedish, Italian and German origin. It is incredibly rich and diverse. The challenge is to convey all that complexity and colour to the audience and give them that sense of a bigger world.”
Set over the course of one swelteringly hot summer’s day in a New York tenement block, the opera follows the everyday difficulties, squabbles, joys, hopes, dreams and disappointments of the people living there. The main focus is on one family – the Maurrants – and the rising tension within their fragile domestic unit. Troubled father Frank is angry about a world that he feels is changing too fast, his unhappy wife Anna is guarding a secret that could tear them apart and daughter Rose is desperate to escape the squalor of the city and find a better life. “A lot of the themes in the opera are timeless and universal, such as people falling in love or trying to cope with a difficult marriage,” says Eberhardt. “The idea of community is also really important and how those social connections survive when they are tested. It is such a cleverly constructed piece – whenever a character gets too close to thinking a dream might be coming true, something disrupts that.”
Gillene Butterfield who plays Rose Maurrant is impressed by the piece’s “unique feel” and the authenticity of the storyline. “It really shows how quickly events can turn, how rapidly things can change, so it is very true to life,” she says. “At that time for women there wasn’t the same freedom to live, love and work; Rose is looking for a way out and she is not quite sure how she will find it.”
For Alex Banfield who plays Rose’s lover Sam Kaplan the opera expresses very well – musically and tonally – “how the bigger things that govern our lives affect our interactions; how if people are not supported sometimes they are driven to do things they would normally think twice about doing.”
While the opera explores these dark and challenging themes, it is above all, says Eberhardt, an entertainment. “The storyline is very powerful and it doesn’t hold back but there are lots of vibrant characters and different styles of music. The audience will come away thinking about things, but also entertained. We are creating a whole world that people can escape into and one they hopefully feel they can really invest in.”
Leeds Grand Theatre, January 18-February 28, then touring. operanorth.co.uk