Sherman Theatre, Cardiff 2017
STREET SCENE by Kurt Weill
Written in 1947 five years after Weill moved to America in a bid to flee the Nazi regime, Street Scene focuses on the lives of an immigrant community living in Lower East Side Manhattan. Based on the 1927 novel of the same name by Elmer Rice and with lyrics by Langston Hughes, the piece coined the term ‘Broadway Opera’ for its eclectic mix of high operatic arias juxtaposed with dialogue heavy scenes and more popular musical-style numbers.
At the start of the design process director Martin Constantine and I began by talking about the set in naturalistic terms, due to how crucial the structure of the tenement building is to the action.
It became clear however that a naturalistic set presented too nostalgic a version of what is actually an extremely brutal opera at it’s heart and confined it to the feel of a museum piece - a tribute to a bygone era rather than something that is hugely relevant to the political and social climate we are currently living in.
The piece takes place over a 24 hour time period which ends in a murder and is concerned with the cyclic nature of unfulfilled lives and dreams. The reality of the characters' lives is that in their pursuit of the American Dream they find themselves teetering on the edge of the curb, one step away from eviction and the gutter.
Weill and Langston Hughes have added arias to the Opera where characters escape reality and explore their memories or their hopes for the future. We decided to use the language of a grid-like canvas, which drew from both the iconic fire-escapes of the tenement buildings, and the manhattan grid itself, enabling us to think in terms of entrapment, constriction and conversely, breath and movement.
At certain points throughout the opera the grids will be flown out in different combinations to reveal chinks of tangible dreams, or memories sung about in many of the songs which are full of visual metaphors, before descenndig guillotine-like back down trapping the characters in their reality once more.
With costumes heavily rooted in the period, the people are seen as the organs or life-force within the skeletal structure of the building.