To coincide with BBC Radio 3’s broadcast of Street Scene on 11 April, Dr Kara McKechnie of the University of Leeds explores Kurt Weill, Langston Hughes and Elmer Rice’s great ‘Broadway opera’ in the context of our extraordinary new circumstances.
“On the 12th February, in a different world, I was Petroc Trelawny’s co-commentator, for Opera North’s production of Street Scene. We recorded it in a busy auditorium at Leeds Grand Theatre, where people had never used the term ‘social distancing’.
The scene that unfolds on stage shows life in a large New York tenement building, where such social distancing would have been impossible, and some characters long to escape. This would be poignant at any time, but our new context changes everything.
I am now thinking differently about Street Scene and its story of people having to get by in confined spaces, with little or no privacy. There are over 30 characters, all of whom would find a place in our newly configured daily reality: Mrs Jones, Mrs Fiorentino and Mrs Olsen, the gossipy neighbours who keep a strict eye on whether anyone is going out beyond allocated exercise time, whether neighbours are social distancing, and eavesdropping on the arguments of families feeling the strain of confinement – ‘What d’you think of that?’ If the nosy busybodies can practically live in the staircase, why can’t everybody else?!
Another neighbour, Mr Kaplan, decides that now is exactly the time to call out social injustice and the pitfalls of capitalism. His grandson Sam sings an ode to a ‘Lonely House’: ‘Funny, with so many neighbours, how lonely it can be…’ This number now feels like an ode to those who feel isolated because there is nobody else in the house, but also to those who feel isolated because they don’t have enough space in a crowded house.
We currently worry about those to whom confinement means threat, and thoughts shift to another of Street Scene’s main characters: Anna Maurrant. Her husband, Frank, feels left behind by the world and his helpless rage manifests in violence, leading to catastrophe in Act 2. During our lockdown, increased calls to domestic violence helplines and emergency services speak their own language and create an alarming parallel with the Maurrants’ story in Street Scene.
Earlier, Anna’s lyrics ‘Somehow, I always will believe there’ll be a brighter day!’ may have helped to fuel our sense of necessary optimism in uncertain times. Later on, ‘her’ melody appears in Sam’s chant ‘Now love and death have linked their arms together’, accompanied by a chorus of shock and mourning. Love and death are more closely interwoven in our daily lives than we would like at the moment, through the news, the worry about loved ones, the compassion for vulnerable people and the grim reality of fatalities.
But Street Scene makes for brighter parallels, too: neighbours come together, we have an increased sense of caring and sharing, and acts of kindness make someone’s day, or at least make life bearable. Anna’s daughter Rose’s lines to her friend Sam ‘remember that I care’ had always felt sad, not expressing the romantic love that Sam was hoping for. Now, remembering that someone cares can be a lifeline for the lonely or sick, can bring courage to our key workers, and make us hopeful we will be able to live in proximity yet once again.
Some of Street Scene’s libretto is heavy with symbolism, a sign of the times in the late 1940s: hope in the shape of a lilac bush, withered love in the shape of dried flowers. We have our own symbols in this time, of course: the rainbows in windows or on pavements; the applause that has migrated from temporarily closed theatres and opera houses out onto our streets, to show our appreciation for our valued NHS staff. Street Scene shows all the aspects of neighbourhood: the joys, frustrations and threats of living together. It also shows us why we need art in times of crisis.”
Street Scene, with interval commentary by Kara with Petroc Trelawney, is broadcast in BBC Radio 3’s Opera on 3 strand on 11 April.
Dr Kara McKechnie lectures in dramaturgy, performance and opera at the University of Leeds and is the author of the 2014 illustrated monograph on Opera North. She is also the resident dramaturg for Leeds company Slung Low, who currently run a local hub for food bank referrals with the help of many volunteers, including colleagues from Opera North.