An opera that often sounds like a musical, or a musical that often sounds like an opera, "Street Scene" adds up to a singular achievement no matter how it is defined. Kurt Weill, the German-born composer who became an American after fleeing the Nazis, poured some of his most brilliant music into the piece.
With a book by Elmer Rice, based on his 1929 Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Street Scene," and lyrics by Langston Hughes, "Street Scene" enjoyed only a modest run on Broadway in 1947. But it was soon widely recognized as the masterwork of Weill's years in this country, worthy of mention alongside his groundbreaking "Threepenny Opera" from 1928.
But that does not mean there are frequent opportunities to experience it in the theater, which makes Peabody Opera Theatre's production opening Friday at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric all the more welcome.
"It's by far the biggest show we've done," says JoAnn Kulesza, interim chair and music director of Peabody Institute's opera department. "We're sticking our necks out a little bit. But I think it's well worth the investment."
A certain bigness is unavoidable with "Street Scene." The slice-of-urban-life plot, which takes place over the course of a 24-hour-period in front of a multistory, multiethnic tenement building, requires a sizable cast to portray all the tenants and passersby.
The Peabody staging will feature 23 principals and a chorus of 15, as well as nine children and eight actors (community auditions were held for several roles). And 58 musicians from the Peabody Symphony Orchestra will be in the pit to perform Weill's vividly colored, genre-ranging score.
This production will depart from the original work in one key respect. The setting for Rice's story is a poor neighborhood in 1940s New York. Audiences at the Lyric will find an evocation of 1940s Baltimore instead.
"It was my idea to set it in Baltimore because of the recent events here," Kulesza says, referring to the Freddie Gray-related riots last spring. "I thought it is a perfect piece to do at this time. It deals with working-class people and the universal struggles of people just trying to make a living, people living ordinary lives."
Stage director Kristine McIntyre, a former Metropolitan Opera staffer whose work has been seen in that house and several other theaters around the country, embraced the change of locale for "Street Scene."
"Moving the piece out of New York and into Baltimore means I can concentrate on the human elements," McIntyre says.
All sorts of people come and go in the opera. Most, including a janitor and ice cream vendor, get a chance to shine musically along the way.
"There is such tremendous specificity about the characters and their proclivities, the ethnic groups and the way they speak," says Steven White, who is conducting the Peabody production. "You can't change the time period of the opera, but the change to Baltimore makes it seem even more universal. The four main characters really are universal."
Those four: Anna Maurrant, who, convinced that "life was never meant to be all dull and gray," escapes her cold marriage with an affair; her rough husband, Frank, who is not prepared to lose his wife to another; their daughter Rose, who dreams of a sweeter life; and fellow dreamer Sam Kaplan, a young Jewish neighbor who loves Rose and hopes she feels the same.
Sam sings one of the opera's telling messages: "Funny, with so many neighbors, how lonely it can be."
By the end of the opera, gunfire claims a couple of lives, disillusionment tears at a couple more. A few tenants are evicted, others arrive to take their place. Things go back to normal, with gossipy neighbors complaining about the sweltering heat, just as they do at the start of "Street Scene."
"The piece can't just be Rose and Sam, Anna and Frank," McIntyre says, "The challenge is finding the long arc. We need to know why Sam and Rose want to get out of that environment. I asked the singers to explore the hierarchy of the apartment building, to think about who's lived there the longest, who's the queen bee and why that matters."
To help maintain the local atmosphere for this production, McIntyre has weeded out specific references to New York while streamlining the original spoken dialogue. The scenic design will include blowups of Baltimore-centric advertisements from the '40s. Projections will be used "as a way to take us out of the tenement" at times, McIntyre says. And the staging will allow some of what goes on inside the building to be seen.
"Most productions of 'Street Scene' look basically the same," the director says. "This one will be more colorful and vibrant than the average gray. The more Baltimore thing would have been [a set depicting] rowhouses, but it was important to have one door, to get the communal ethos of an apartment building. But we'll still have the famous marble steps of Baltimore. It will be a familiar place."
Very familiar in spots.
"When Anna is taken away on a stretcher, an ambulance siren is heard offstage and Weill's music becomes very haunted," says the Portland, Ore.-based McIntyre. "I've been staying in town since rehearsals started, and I have been struck by the sound of sirens every night. It's a sound the kids in the cast know well, too."
Throughout the rehearsal process, the director has talked with the singers about the layers and messages in the opera's story.
"I asked them, 'Does Anna Maurrant's murder matter in any significant way?' In the scene when they sing about the effect of violence," McIntyre says, "I asked the kids, 'What can you say to the audience with that?' They have been wonderful. They bring a real genuineness to this. They really want to humanize the characters."
Helping to make each character register in "Street Scene" is Weill's music, which, as English opera scholar Rodney Milnes has written, "is notable for its compassion, its anger and its total lack of condescension." (The score will be played complete in the Peabody production.)
"The mix of styles is just enormous," says the Virginia-based White, who conducted productions for the former Baltimore Opera Company and its successor, Lyric Opera of Baltimore. "It's a tremendous challenge to integrate all those different styles and make it seem natural. You get Puccini-esque juxtaposed immediately with cabaret style or jazz."
The many characters and incidents in "Street Scene" help create a cohesive statement about life for the urban poor. A realistic statement, too. Unlike most pieces staged on Broadway in the 1940s, this one does not follow a conventional, happy-ending route.
In the closing minutes, after the death of her mother and arrest of her father, Rose no longer feels the same about herself or Sam. She decides to leave the neighborhood — alone.
"It's very bittersweet," McIntyre says. "Our Hollywood-movie side would love to see the two go off together. There has been an interesting divide in the rehearsal hall. The men in the show are angry at Rose for not staying with Sam; all the women understand inherently that she needs to go. The point is, Rose survives. And Sam will find a nice Jewish girl. All will be well."
"Street Scene" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. Tickets are $25 to $35. Call 410-900-1150, or go to lyricoperahouse.com.
A panel discussion about "Street Scene" with Hollis Robbins, chair of the humanities department at Peabody, and Peter Jelavich, a history professor at the Johns Hopkins University, will be held at 5 p.m. Sunday in the Rehearsal Room at the Modell-Lyric. Admission is free.