STREET SCENE by Kurt Weill: Opera North
Grand Theatre, Leeds, January 18th 2020
The synopsis for the Opera North production of Street Scenes, which opened at ´The Grand Theatre,´ Leeds on Saturday 18th January 2020, of one of Kurt Weill´s lesser known musicals, was atmospheric and dramatic.
´On a stiflingly hot summer´s day and night in New York a family is pushed to breaking point. Frank is angry at a world that’s changing too fast. His daughter Rose longs for a different life away from the squalor of the city and his wife, also unhappy, struggles with a terrible secret that would blow their world apart. As the heat builds, the tension rises and explodes into violence that will their lives changed for ever. The backdrop is America in the post war years. The apartment block is a microcosm of life at that time. With the hindsight of history the audience knows that the America world itself soon explode into its own pool of violence engulfing the lives of the residents of downtown New York. Kurt Weill skilfully blends these two worlds and their conflicts, telling the tale of the family through his musical arrangements.´
The world and its conflicts, darkness and war and tensions in domestic lives were common currency of Kurt Weill, and his musical compositions and arrangements capture that secrecy and intrigue and fear. Street Scene he blends the arias and duets of the opera world with the jazz of Broadway, the new musical form of its day. Soaring arias and duets rubs shoulders with the golden Broadway days of jazz and the jitterbug. Puccini shakes hands with Gershwin, in a fictional embrace, to create a musical in the hands of Kurt Weill. Whilst the piece lacks the show-stopping hits of some of its contemporaries, numbers such as Lonely House, Moon Faced and Starry Eyes won him the prize of best musical score in the very first Tony award in 1947.
The Leeds audience was attentive to every detail and applauded every song. The youngsters opening the second act had the audience spellbound in their playground games and songs taking the form of the lives of their elders for whom they were destined to copy so long as the backdrop for their lives played out. The cast, tonight, included Guisell Allen, Robert Heywood, Gelline Butterfield, Alison Langar, who made up the Maurrant family and I must mention Amy Payne (who plays Greta Firontino) as she looked so menacing in the program notes.
All of the above came to the all across the arts office on Lanzarote via an attachment to an e mail from Steve Bewick, radio broadcaster and jazz buff. The body of that e mail told us the above had all been tapped into his phone pad as he returned over the Pennines to his Milnrow home on the last night train from Leeds to Manchester. His e mail rambled on about plans for a proposed holiday over here with us, and somehow managed to name Faust, Trotsky and Boris Johnson in the same sentence, a trick surely no one else has ever achieved. He also told me he has recently been attending events at Bury Jazz Society that meets to listen to and discuss all types of jazz music from New Orleans, swing, mainstream Bebop and contemporary jazz. Members will give a talk, or invite others to the Society to give a presentation on these topics. Entrance is £3.50 to a jazz society that already has its own Facebook page and has been receiving positive press in The Bury Times. They meet at The Mosses on Cecil Street, but check fb for further details.
When Steve mentioned a change in direction of his own visual art work I was reminded not only of Steve´s skills with a pencil, but also the music of Miles Davis. When Steve last holidayed with us a few years ago he created to some incredible sketches of our Lanzarote landscape, which naturally we entitled Sketches Of Spain, in homage to Miles Davis´ seminal album. Later this year, Steve will be staging an exhibition of work with his artistic mentor. And by then Steve also expects to be presenting a new ´live´ radio programme on his favourite topic of jazz music, so watch this space for details.
He told me that Street Scene is a lesser known musical by Kurt Weill, in which Porgy takes Bess to see West Side Story,. a descriptive comparison of Steve´s own making. For anyone who might not be prepared to cross the hills into the county of the white rose, the production will be presented at The Lowry, in Salford, but for one night only. so check details at their box office or on line.
When ´polite society´ still thought that the music-hall tradition lowered the tone of entertainment, the deliciously titled Leeds Grand Theatre And Opera House was built. In that time, 1878, music halls were seen as ´pub-based´ establishments so the name of the new-build on a three quarter acre site fronted by the Briggate space could not have further distanced it from such associations. It took more than a year and more than sixty thousand pounds to build. Its architects, George Corson and james Robertson Watson, who had together toured Europe seeking out its churches and theatres, drew inspiration from that journey. The gothic ecclesiastical spires they would have seen are there amidst the Romanesque and Scottish baronial style of the building, in which can be found many more gothic motifs.
Significant of its elevated status was the fact that only those with tickets for the best seats were allowed to enter via the main entrance. All others were herded through side doors so that class conscious Victorian high society could remain detached from those ´below their ranks. The Dress Circle and Boxes were furnished with free standing chairs hen elsewhere in the theatre the seating was all of the bench style, some of which, in the Upper Circle, was upholstered, but those in the Gallery were simply hard wood and backless, and packers were employed to cram as many people as possible on to these benches, which must have made theatre going then a cramped and uncomfortable experience.
The grand theatre and Opera House, Leeds is now well over one hundred and fifty years old and has become widely regarded as major milestones in Victorian theatre building.
The first ever performance at the venue was of Much ado About Nothing on 10th November 1878. Stars who performed their in the twentieth century include Sarah Bernhardt, Julie Andrews, Morecambe And Wise and Laurence Olivier.
With a capacity of slightly over 1,500 the theatre now houses performances of all types and the best and most notable examples of dance, drama, comedy and music productions have been shown.
Anyone seeing a performance of Kurt Weill´s Street Scene at both the Grand Theatre Leeds, and later at The Lowry Salford could not but help noticing the difference in the between the venues, and for that reason alone it would be worth checking out https://thelowry.com/whats-on
According to Wiki, to redevelop the derelict Salford docks, Salford City Council developed a regeneration plan in 1988 for the brownfield site highlighting the leisure, cultural and tourism potential of the area, and included a flagship development that would involve the creation of a performing arts centre. The initial proposals were for two theatres and an art gallery on a prominent site on Pier 8.
Between 1990 and 1991 a competition was launched and architects James Stirling Michael Wilford Associates was selected. After the death of James Stirling in June 1992 Michael Wilford continued the project. The city council bid for Millennium and other British and European funds and private sector finance to progress the project. Funding was secured in 1996 and The Lowry Trust became responsible for the project which comprised The Lowry Centre, the plaza, a footbridge, a retail outlet shopping mall and Digital World Centre. The National Lottery provided over £21 million of funding towards its construction. The project was completed in 2000 at a cost of £106 million. The Lowry name was adopted in honour of the local artist, L. S. Lowry. In 2002, a nearby shopping centre that was also named after Lowry was opened.
The complex is close to the Imperial War Museum North and the Old Trafford football stadium. It is served by the MediaCityUK stop on the Metrolink tram network. In 2010 and 2011 it was Greater Manchester’s most visited tourist attraction.
The Lowry, though, is not only a theatre but is also a registered charity (No: 1053962) committed to using visual and performing arts to enrich people’s lives.
It offers audiences a diverse programme of theatre, opera, musicals, dance, music, comedy and visual art as well as events and activities to expand the horizons of audiences and artists alike. I have been privileged to work there as a freelance artist on a couple of occasions and as an audience member I have seen concerts by the likes of Joan Baez and poetry recitals by wordsmiths like Roger McGough.
At the heart of the theatre´s work is a commitment to local communities and young people. Tapping into the work on their stages and in their galleries, we The Lowry offers thousands of free creative participation opportunities each year. There is a passion about nurturing talent, developing creative professionals of the future and raising aspirations.
It is a majestic, metallic structure that still seems futuristic, twenty years after being built. It still dominates a huge stretch of Salford Quays having been at the forefront of that areas re-gentrification´at the time. There is wonderful lighting outside that seems to imprint the structure on to the night sky, and there are galleries, libraries, workshops and coffee shops and two or three theatres / concert halls of various sizes.
As part of a community project I had been involved in I once took a group of disadvantaged youngsters from a deprived area in Rochdale to see a Matthew Bourne ballet at The Lowry. The staff were amazing, and invited the kids on to the stage before the event, and making sure these young people had a life-changing experience.
When I went there again, later, to my first Lowry concert and arrived there in the dark the light of the theatre as I approached it took my breath away, and that night, like Steve Bewick furiously typing up his review on the night train I launched into a stream of consciousness review that was unlike anything I had ever written.
Just for fun, (mine certainly, and perhaps for yours too) I will post that review of the Janis Ian concert called Boots Like Emmylou´s over the next couple of weeks.
The Lowry, of course, is named after Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887 – 1976) – an artist who spent much of his life in Salford and whose work is strongly associated with the city.
Salford Museum & Art Gallery had been a long-standing collector of his work and some 400 individual works – as well as an extensive archive of photographs, press cuttings and exhibition catalogues – were transferred to The Lowry on its opening in April 2000.
Today, The Lowry provides critical and curatorial analysis of his work and seeks to raise his profile as an artist of international stature.
Kurt Weill, writer of the Street Scene piece that had so intrigued Steve Bewick, was an American composer, born in Germany in 1900, who, in collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, created revolutionary Opera, full of sharp social satire. After gaining experience as an Opera coach and conductor in Dessau, Weill settled in Berlin in the early nineteen twenties and studied music, beginning as a composer of instrumental works.
Two early works, Der Protagonist and Royal Palace, established him as one Germany´s most promising Opera composers. Critics noted his music as being expressionistic, experimental and abstract.
Weill´s first collaboration with Brecht, Mahagonny, was something of a success and more of a scandal at the prestigious Baden Baden Festival in Germany in 1927, as it was seen as satirising life in an imaginary America that was somehow recognisably Germany, too. The following year Weill created perhaps one of his most famous works, The Threepenny Opera, a transposition of John Gay´s Beggar´s Opera, written 200 years earlier. Gay´s eighteenth century vagabonds were turned by Weill into recognisable character from the Berlin underworld of the nineteen twenties.
This work, and performances of extended versions of Mahagoony under the title of Rise And Fall Of The City Of Mahagonny, forged Weill´s reputation as a composer of music that could be harsh, mordant, jazz flavoured and touched by a haunting melancholy. His work illustrated an awareness of American popular music genres, including ragtime and jazz.
Popular musicians, too, have interpreted Weill´s work, with Marianne Faithful making several recordings of his work. However, respected music journalist Bob Gottlieb, begins an otherwise positive review of one such album, Seven Deadly Sins, with something of a public health warning.
´If you’re looking for the angelic Marianne Faithfull of As Tears Go By, or the angry diva of Broken English, or the lusher but piercingly acute imagery of her work with Angelo Badalamenti, you will not find it here. What you will find, though, is a fully orchestrated work that she has been selling out the house with in Europe — a parable of commerce called The Seven Deadly Sins, with the Vienna Radio Orchestra and Dennis Russell Davies conducting. These are the songs of Kurt Weill, composer, and Bertolt Brecht, lyricist. This work, it would seem, is a perfect match of voice timbre and sound wished for by the composer. The husky and weary voiced Faithfull does these songs as they were intended to be done, her voice a beautiful match in tone and colour. It is the heavy and sombre tone of the music that blends so perfectly with her voice here. Weill’s music tends toward a formality and sombreness that shadows the concerns of the songs. Here Brecht’s lyrics tell the moribund story of a girl placed on a tour by her family to earn money for their luxury; her voice reflects the weariness that becomes the ideal vehicle for her travails and lacerations. According to the tabloids, if they are to be believed, Marianne spent her life researching this work. She displays that rare intelligence that allows all “misfortunes” to be converted to her benefit. There is a detachment that allows one to be intimately involved with, but not consumed by, this type of work. This is her best work in quite some time. She deserves all the accolades that come her way as a serious singer who can pull off the piece. A wonderful disc from one whose live presence we must count as miraculous considering what she has lived through.´
So, a brief e mail, composed on the night trains took me wandering the Sidetracks And Detours that meander all across the arts, and took me Leeds to the Lowry, from twentieth century Germany and America to 21st century gentrified Manchester, and whilst doing so learned a little bit about social attitudes then and now. I followed Steve´s signposts and signals to Opera and jazz and drama, had a quick ´glance´ at his own new art work, and fell in love all over again with Marianne Faithful, and by doing all that created this ´new´ piece to post to the blog.
Getting Gobby At The Lobby.
Steve, though, was not the only one to guide me down new sidetracks and detours this week. Also fulfilling the role of tour guide all across the arts was the poet Ian Whitely who tells me that they are ´Getting Gobby In The Lobby´ which is actually the title he has given to a new series of poetry and comedy nights in Wakefield. Oddly enough that sounds like just the sort of thing the eclectic Steve Bewick might fit into one of his quirky jazz programmes.
Ian is an innovative writer who sometimes sets his poetry to music and has released a cd which I reviewed in positive terms a few years ago. I will try to retrieve that from the aata archives and re-generate it for you whilst also inviting Ian to keep us updated re dates and performances. They are getting Gobby At The Lobby on the second Wednesday of each month, with the next event being on 12th February., in what looks on-line like a great venue at Lobby 1867, Unity Hall, Westgate, Wakefield WF1 1EP