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Street Scene in a nutshell

Everything you need to know about Kurt Weill’s Street Scene in one place, right here!

What is the story?

Street Scene is set in sweltering 1940s New York. The plot centres around the various residents of a single tenement building, and takes place over just 24 hours.

While starting out as just another day – chit-chat, neighbourly gossip and domestic spats – these 24 hours turn out to be pivotal for one family in particular – the Maurrants. Frank Maurrant is deeply suspicious, his daughter Rose longs for a better life away from the squalor of the city, and his unhappy wife Anna struggles with a terrible secret that could tear them all apart. As the heat builds, the tension erupts into terrible violence…

Read full synopsis »

Who are the key characters?

Frank Maurrant — a violent man (baritone)
Anna Maurrant — his wife, allegedly having an affair (soprano)
Rose Maurrant — their teenage daughter (soprano)
Sam Kaplan — Rose’s love interest (tenor)

Street Scene features a staggering 32 named roles. Most make up the different (and all slightly dysfunctional) families that live in the crowded building, and a few are visitors from the outside world. There are also 16 children who are key to the opera’s atmosphere and community feel.

Alex Banfield as Sam and Gillene Butterfield as Rose on the Street Scene promo photoshoot © Hollie Marshall

What is the music like?

Street Scene’s score is a unique synthesis of European opera and American musical theatre, with spoken dialogue (often underscored by the orchestra) too.

Numbers such as Anna’s ‘Somehow I Never Could Believe’ is Puccini-like both harmonically and in its emotional intensity, as is Frank’s dramatic ‘Let Things Be Like They Always Was’. On the other hand, we have Sam’s bluesy, brooding ‘Lonely House’ and the high energy ‘Moon-faced, Starry-eyed’ – a full-on Broadway style song and dance sequence! In our production, this number will be performed by music theatre stars, as opposed to opera singers.

The libretto (lyrics) is written in the everyday language of the people at the time. Below, hear a few highlights via Spotify from the Original Broadway Cast recording (1947):

What is this production like?

Traditionally, Street Scene is set on the street and steps outside the tenement house. However, in our new production by Matthew Eberhardt (designed by Francis O’Connor), the inside of the building with its many staircases, stairwells and hallways is all on view to the audience. This four-storey towering maze represents the literal and emotional claustrophobia that the residents feel, and also allows each family to have their own apartment door – and therefore physical space – within the set. See some reference images below.

Look out for everyday objects becoming something magical – such as a New York streetlight transforming into the ‘moon’ for ‘Moon-faced, Starry-eyed’, reflecting the running theme of escapism in the piece. Costumes are 1940s in style, and all define individual characters.

Who was the composer?

Street Scene was written by German-Jewish composer Kurt Weill (1900-1950). Weill had great successes in Germany in the late 1920s. His hugely varied output ranged from string quartets to cantatas, but it was his musical theatre work and songs that hit home with the public – most notably The Threepenny Opera, which features the famous ‘Mack the Knife’.

However, in 1933 Weill was forced to flee Nazi Germany, and in 1935 arrived in New York to start a new life. Once settled, Weill set out to develop a new genre, ‘American opera’, which he believed should be closer to Broadway musicals than traditional operatic works, and therefore more commercially sustainable. This defines Street Scene perfectly.

Kurt Weill and his wife Lotte Lenya in 1942 © Alarmy

A little history

In Berlin in 1930, Weill saw a play named Street Scene by Elmer Rice (in German translation as Die Straβe) which took place entirely on the street in front of a New York tenement house between one afternoon and the next, and was inspired:

“I saw great musical possibilities in its theatrical device. And it seemed like a great challenge to me to find the inherent poetry in these people and to blend my music with the stark realism of the play.”
Kurt Weill

Several years later, Rice agreed to a musical adaptation, and Weill set to work.

In order to compose music that would really depict the ethnic ‘melting pot’ of characters in the piece (Italian, Swedish and German immigrants, African Americans and more), Weill visited specific neighbourhoods in New York and observed people. Langston Hughes (the opera’s librettist) also took him to nightclubs to hear the newest black American jazz and blues. Street Scene finally opened on Broadway in January 1947, and later that year was awarded the very first Tony Award for Best Original Score!

Claire Pascoe as Mrs Jones on the Street Scene promo photoshoot © Hollie Marshall

Did you know?

—  In spite of its synthesis of styles, the piece is considered much more of an opera than a musical – it is regularly staged by professional opera companies, but has never been revived on Broadway.
—  Street Scene features a whole number about ice cream! This mad-cap, show-stopping sextet is sung after house resident Lippo Fiorentino arrives home with ice cream cones for all (which are rapturously received), and swings between Italian opera references and jazz. What’s not to love?
—  This marks Opera North’s first staging of Street Scene. 

Street Scene is sung in English and lasts approximately 2 hours 45 minutes (including one interval). Join in on social media with #ONStreetScene

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