Opera takes to the ‘Street;’ dance dives into the river

By Holly Gitlin - Detail of poster courtesy of Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, Inc.

Styling: Holly Gitlin - Detail of poster courtesy of Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, Inc.

Photography: Holly Gitlin - Detail of poster courtesy of Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, Inc.

May 30, 2006

Opera skeptics may change their tune after ‘Street Scene’

I wonder if even the most voracious theatergoer has the same fear of opera that I seem to have developed over the years. The idea of sitting for a couple of hours while someone belted out an aria in Italian never really appealed to me. That is, until I befriended some folks at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

They told me the legends of OTSL, how it’s truly one of our city’s most unappreciated jewels, how all shows are performed in English. I must admit that, after they got me thinking about it, the passion-infused medium of opera started to seem broodingly delicious. My quandary was which show to start with.

I asked around and resoundingly heard that the show everyone is most psyched to see this season is “Street Scene.” Taking a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Elmer Rice, composer Kurt Weill and lyricist (and Missouri native) Langston Hughes adapted “Street Scene” into a Broadway-bound American opera in 1947.

Weill, tired of European opera with its limited appeal, wanted to branch out and create an opera for the people. Rice’s “Street Scene” was the perfect vehicle for Weill’s endeavor. The play deals with immigrants trying to make their way in a New York brownstone community. The play takes place over two particularly gritty days in which its inhabitants’ swelling adultery and greed finally come to a head, aggravated by the sweltering heat of summer. In many ways it resonates as the operatic version of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.”

“The work is about immigrants and their way of life, trying to fit into a society that is in itself divided, sometimes against itself,” noted OTSL music director Stephen Lord. “What more relevant topic do we have today, with our own immigration situation and cultures trying to mesh and get along?”
OTSL’s “Street Scene,” with shows June 15, 17, 21, 23 and 25, could not be more aptly timed. In addition, Weill, an immigrant himself, was fascinated by American music and injected the opera’s score with American jazz and blues, making this production quite an amalgamation of styles.

Along with “Street Scene,” OTSL will present the three other operas this season. “The Barber of Seville” is chock-full of recognizable orchestrations (think: “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro”). Essentially, a rich count pretends to be a poor student to win the affections of a lady. Trouble ensues when he has to win her away from an overbearing suitor. “Hansel and Gretel” is an evening for all ages. Rounding out OTSL’s summer offerings is “Jane Eyre.” This classic story is ruled by the charm and chaos of Victorian love. It has everything you need: affairs and madness mixed with a twist
of psychodrama.

Each year OTSL mounts a huge tent behind the Loretto-Hilton Center, and each performance brings an opportunity to gather at the tent, share drinks, meet performers and eat food from Ces and Judy’s Catering.

After doing the research on OTSL, I must admit that I am now more excited than fearful to attend the opera.

A day to dance on the Mississippi

What on earth is site-specific dance? At first glance it sounds rather postmodern and elusive. In actuality, it’s an amazingly rare dance form. Fortunately, St. Louis will witness just such an event on June 24.

The event is One River Mississippi, and it will be performed on and around the Eads Bridge, all over our Mississippi River waterfront and even on the water itself. It incorporates dance, accentuating props (such as billowing swatches of flowing blue fabric) and music to reclaim the river by injecting the expansive riverfront with elements of reinvention.

Several local choreographers, musicians, dancers, activists, crafters and artists are organizing this community-centered event. At the same time we converge on the waterfront, citizens in six other cities along the length of the Mississippi will line their banks to witness their own community-centered events. Via live simulcasts and webcasts, each city will share the experiences in real time.

At 7 p.m. St. Louis-area dancers will present pieces by local choreographers on the Eads Bridge, where the spectators will be assembled. Following this component, the action will spread to the rest of the riverfront, into a syncopated program that will be nearly the same in each participating city, according to Loryl Breitenbach, the St. Louis ORM project manager.

Site-specific dance is not a new concept, per se. In particular, this project is the evolution of Minnesotan Marylee Hardenbergh’s “Solstice River” project, which was started to celebrate the Minneapolis riverfront. For more than a decade, Hardenbergh has brought her community down to the banks of the Mississippi.

The medley of classic songs and original music that will provide the soundtrack for the ORM celebration includes selections from Miles Davis and Johnnie Johnson, meaning St. Louis will be represented by our heavily rooted jazz and blues culture. This music and the riverfront are the perfect fusion of life here on the Mississippi; local ORM organizers could not have chosen a better score.

Being that this is a community-centered event, ORM will need community involvement to make it happen. It’s campaigning for performers, volunteers and even a boom-box brigade (to sign up, visit www.onerivermississippi.org). The day of the event, organizers are expecting anywhere from 100 to 200 people to perform in the piece.

If you cannot donate time, then definitely do attend the performance. Events like ORM don’t happen every day. This site-specific adventure just may be one of the most exciting events of the summer.

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