04 March 2014

On Street Scene and the Promise of American Opera

What to say about Street Scene...?

Kurt Weill called this show a "Broadway opera." As one of the most important (I know I throw that word around a lot) composers of German opera in the 20s and 30s, I strongly feel we should listen to him. Stephen Sondheim says that if it's played in an opera house it's an opera, on Broadway it's musical theater. I agree with this sentiment to a certain degree, but I basically disagree. Was Sweeney Todd an opera when the now lost New York City Opera performed it? Of course it was. But this postmodern reading that changes the content by changing the context misses a particular point that I would like to attempt to make now: Weill was initially an opera composer--both opera and anti-opera--but when he came to the States, his calling to compose for the stage made him learn the idiom of Broadway so as to continue that trajectory, but with at least Street Scene, the three mini-operas in Lady in the Dark, and the often-called oratorio-structure of Lost in the Stars, Weill was pushing a generic difference that often gets lost in the wash. Street Scene was his major attempt to really make sense out of these questions, and the questions are: 1. what is American opera? 2. what is "American opera" founded upon? 3. can it escape the gravitational pull of Broadway?

The answers are as follows: 1. we still don't know. 2. we're not sure, but we have ideas. 3. it should not.

There still is no American opera. Still. But opera comes from the "national" culture--just as theater does--and what I want to say is this: There would be no West Side Story without Street Scene; Bernstein continued Weill's project to found an American opera tradition; it begins with Broadway and ends somewhere else; we haven't found it yet.

But Show Boat, Porgy and BessStreet Scene, and certainly Loesser's brilliant, The Most Happy Fella, will show someone the way. Somewhere there is a place for us.

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