Street Scene by Kurt Weil


We are all obsessed by the Second World War. So when I was invited by my daughter to watch an opera by Kurt Weil written in 1946 I was on the lookout for Nazis. Weil was a communist Jew who had fled to America to escape Hitler who would have taken a dim view of his political avant garde musical work to date.

Street Scene however has no reference whatever to the momentous times in which it was written. It simply recounts a day in the life of a New York street. The New Yorkers are much more interested in their own parochial affairs. The only political reference comes early on, but is simply a moan about the capitalist press by the local street philosopher. It is just one bit of local colour among many.

The street in question has enough drama to be getting on with anyway. After a bit of a slow start I found myself drawn into the story and getting interested in the people portrayed. It is a dark tale but a compelling one. Classical opera uses the plot simply to get you from one aria to another and to set up the emotional state for the music. Weil described Street Scene as an American opera, a category which if it ever caught on has passed me by. The scenes are linked by a lot more dialogue than in a traditional opera, making it feel a lot more like a musical.

It is easy to see why the piece, whatever you call it, was well received at the time. The music is very good. Some sounds like it could come straight out of a Puccini opera. Other bits use themes from children’s songs, jazz and blues. None of this sounds experimental or contrived. All the music is fully formed and works very well, so you get a lot of variety which fits in with the diversity of characters we meet and the range of emotions they express.

It is also easy to see why Street Scene has not really stood the test of time. Although there are lots of good songs in it, there are no stand out hits. It may not have crossed Weil’s mind that one would be a good idea. Also it doesn’t really fit anywhere. It isn’t really an opera despite its name. But it is still too operatic to really be a musical. Also the dabbling with blues influences don’t really surprise anyone any more. Within a few years everyone was at it. All in all this is a work that is of its time and which was rapidly superseded.

But it is still interesting as a period piece. We see a slice of New York life warts and all. The subject matter probably seemed edgy or even shocking when it came out, but after 70 years of mass media the modern palette is thoroughly jaded. There is a curious omission, in that race does not come up as an issue. But it was intended as a commercial proposition, so maybe they were calibrating the shock level to what they thought the audience of the time would stomach.

So now to the important question, does it still stand up as a bit of entertainment and should you watch it? It is a bit slow and a bit long for modern tastes. But the music is good and the story is compelling. You probably wouldn’t want to invest 3 hours of your time in it if you were busy. But if you have time on your hands and are looking for something you haven’t seen before you could do a lot worse.

 

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