Opéra de Monte-Carlo is presenting a new production of Street Scene (1946) by Kurt Weill (1900-1950), staged by the English opera director John Fulljames. Mr Fulljames explains his approach to readers of Classicagenda.
The current co-production between the opera houses of Monte-Carlo, Madrid and Cologne is at least your third staging of the work. In 2008, you staged a co-production with London’s Young Vic and Opera Group, and in 2013 you reworked it for performances in Paris and Barcelona. Can you speak about the evolution of your approach to this work ?
It has been such a pleasure to revisit this extraordinary opera over many years and in many different cities. It is fascinating to me how the story it tells is on the one hand so specific, to time and place in New York, and yet on the other says something so universal about the nature of cities and of our lives on top of each other within them.
It has been fascinating to start the project in an Anglophone country, and more recently perform the project for non-English speaking audiences; I think this makes a very big difference to how the piece is heard.
Street Scene is difficult to classify. Weill referred to it as an “American opera,” different from European operas of his day, in that it was more closely connected to commercial theatre and include many different genres, including jazz, blues, Broadway musical and verismo opera. In staging this work, do you make a choice of aligning yourself with one of these genres ?
The opera really is a melting pot opera – a melting pot of people and also of musical genres. It is very important to respect this and bring out each of the different genres. The Maurrant’s tragic story is told through an operatic idiom, recognisable from many post-romantic early twentieth-century scores. The life of the children on the street is a much lighter form of musical theatre (“Wrapped in a Ribbon” and the children’s song which starts Act 2). The young generation as represented by Mae and Dick think they are in a Broadway musical! All of these things need to co-exist.
The opera really is a melting pot opera.
What is the role of dance in this production ?
Elmer Rice’s play, Street Scene, on which the opera is based, is a piece of realism. In adapting the work into lyrical piece of course Weill leaves realism behind – as he allows us to go inside the emotions of the characters. This is most clear in the dances I think – which release something of the fantasy of the characters. The Street is a place from which there is a little escape – but dance usually offers the fantasy of escape, whether it is the social dance of the graduating girls, the oily dance of Mr Easter’s attempted seduction of Rose, or the drunken fantasy of Mae and Dick in the early hours of the morning.
One of Weil’s theoretical imperatives was to set Street Scene in the present of the time he wrote it: that is, the first half of the twentieth century. Although this period is fairly recent (as operas go), is there still a temptation to update ?
Weill updated the play from its original setting – musically it is clearly a piece written in the middle of the twentieth century – even though it belongs more to the 1930s or 1940s than the 1950s. We weren’t tempted to update it – it is based so strongly in realism this would be a very hard thing to do while also maintaining a credible relationship to the text.
The cast of Street Scene, with over thirty characters, is unusually large. What are the particular challenges this presents ?
Street Scene is a very challenging opera to cast; every character needs to be very carefully planned to take the right role in the story and every performer needs to have just the right mix of skills with singing, in the right style, acting and dance. But then when you ensemble the company it really is a joyous piece – one which performers tend to love being part of – perhaps because there is such a strong sense of community on-stage.
The Street is like the character that will endure the longest when the people have passed through and moved on
Clocking in at three hours, Street Scene is a long spectacle, but the basic set—a street in front of a Lower East Side tenement—remains constant throughout. As a stage director, how can once create dynamism in this static situation ?
So much of the power of Street Scene of course comes from the Street and the buildings on it; there is a sense that the building has seen everything before and will see it all again. The Street is like the character that will endure the longest when the people have passed through and moved on; we see a new family moving into replace the Hildebrands at the end of the opera. It is compelling to see how the Street changes as day turns to evening and into night and eventually dawn, as the people who pass through it change. It really is utterly transformed despite being the same street. And of course in the show we are not bound by realism; the Street exists as a psychological space as well as a real one, so as we enter the fantasies which the music conjures, the street and buildings evolve in ways which real buildings never do. The sewage pipes are the veins of the building, the creaks are its breathing and when the people inside dream the building stretches in empathy with them.