November 2, 2018

Mozart's unknowables: Giovanni's choice

Why are some operas exalted as "masterpieces" and others not? Specifically, why is Mozart held in such high regard in opera history? Even more specifically, what's so great about Don Giovanni?
Psychiatrist Julius August Koch

I addressed part of the answer in last week's post, in which my aim was to demonstrate Mozart's superior skill-sets as a musical dramatist; his ability to make virtually every note in the opera directly reveal a character's mental state or physical action. But that's not the whole story.

For me, my fascination with Don Giovanni rests on the tantalizing aspects of this tale of sin and punishment that elude us; that provoke debate among opera lovers; that are hard to define with precision; that remain mysteries; …

...that are unknowable.

Through my half-century of familiarity with this piece I've identified three such elements. Each is worth its own blog post, so in this one I'll limit myself to the biggest and most profound question, namely:

Why, when faced with eternal punishment, does Giovanni refuse to repent?
It's due to the seriousness with which Mozart applied himself to this scene that we need consider the question. Remember: most previous versions of the story were straight-forward in depicting the sinner's fate. Of course he remains defiant to the end; of course he doesn't play ball with the Stone Guest. He's bad, so he does bad things. End of story.

But in Mozart's hands, Giovanni is not a one-dimensional avatar of amorality; he's a fully-realized recognizably human being, even if a repugnant one. Mozart forces us to imagine ourselves face-to-face with supernatural forces of Judgement Day. God Himself (in the form of an animated statue) alerts us to the torment awaiting US for the bad things we've done. We're condemned to taking a cosmic elevator, and it's going DOWN.

But - it's not too late! Just repent! We all know what we would do in Giovanni's place. We would comply. We'd repent like gangbusters. We'd be on our knees.

And Giovanni says "No thanks, I'm good."

What??

"Pentiti, scellerato!" (Repent, you scoundrel!) intones the statue; "No, vecchio infatuato! (No, you fatuous old man!) shouts the sinner. And then his time is up; he disappears. He made his choice, and will suffer the consequences.

But who chooses THAT?

In attempting to answer this question, let's take the situation as seriously as Mozart; let's assume it's not an over-the-top conclusion to a laugh-filled morality play. Let's take it literally, as if it really happened.

I toggle between two possible answers. The truth may be one or the other, or a combination of both, or something else entirely. But these two are what I've got.

1. DON GIOVANNI IS MODELED AFTER LITERATURE'S FIRST ANTI-HERO
Perhaps Giovanni, in the composer's mind, is similar to Satan in John Milton's epic Paradise Lost. Once the most beautiful angel in Heaven, Lucifer got the worst job demotion in history, becoming the first resident and ruler of Hell. At one point, Milton depicts Satan surveying his new digs (I picture him standing at the corner of Hades Street and Perdition Boulevard in downtown Hell) and reveling - reveling!! - in his circumstance. Among his observations (abridged for space):

Is this the region, this the soil, the clime, … this the seat that we must change for Heaven?
Be it so, since he who now is sovereign can dispose and bid what shall be right...
The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven...
Here at last WE SHALL BE FREE (the all-caps are my addition)…
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.

Giovanni and Satan have one character trait in common: they aren't big on following God's rules. They feel no apology is in order for the way they go about their business. "Why do YOU get to make all the rules?" they brazenly ask of the Creator. I suspect they both find playing God's game like trying to beat the odds at a Vegas casino:

The house always wins.

So, each in his own way, abruptly chooses not to play the game. And that takes a kind of courage; a perverse courage, perhaps, but that's what anti-heroes have.

Or…………………….

2. DON GIOVANNI IS A PSYCHOPATH.
The term "psychopath" is out of fashion these days; clinical doctors in the field of psychology prefer "anti-social personality disorder". Nevertheless, I find it useful to look at the original definition of psychopathology as defined in 1881 by Dr. Julius August Koch, a German psychiatrist. The concept of this sort of disorder was unknown until codified by Koch, who compiled this list of symptoms and characteristics of the psychopath*:
  • lack of guilt/remorse
  • Lack of empathy (to the psychopath, other people are mere objects)
  • Lack of deep emotional attachments
  • Narcissism
  • Superficial charm
  • Dishonesty
  • Manipulativeness
  • Reckless risk-taking
Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Don Giovanni will see that the title character rings the bell on every single trait above. Consider, and be amazed: 101 years before science discovered and defined the the psychopath da Ponte and Mozart created a 100% accurate case-study of one that could be used in psych classes.

Once categorizing Giovanni as a psychopath, the explanation for his unlikely attitude towards eternal punishment becomes clear: he is incapable of experiencing fear.

I cheerfully admit to being a musician and NOT a psychiatrist or psychologist, but I enjoy reading articles in journals in the field, and what I've read leads me to understand that the only emotional affect the psychopath can experience is rage. All the others - joy, hope, love, fear, etc. - he/she can only imitate.

Courageous hero or sick puppy with an abnormal psyche? Or... am I missing something and it's something else entirely?

Mozart doesn't tell us in chapter-and-verse style. Unlike Hitchcock's Psycho, which ends with a doctor lecturing us about the nature of Norman Bates' dysfunction, the end of the opera is content to conclude that virtue triumphs and sinners are punished.

But, seriously, WHY DIDN'T HE JUST REPENT???????

* (source: "Psychopath vs. Sociopath: What's the Difference" by Natasha Tracy, www.healthyplace.com)



October 24, 2018

Don Giovanni: Gazzaniga vs. Mozart

So - Gazzaniga versus Mozart. Your first thought, possibly:



"Gazza who?"

What - you don't have an extensive collection of the works of Giuseppe Gazzaniga (1743-1818) in your personal compact disc library??
Gazzaniga: first, but not best

Yeah, neither do I...

I do have, however, a disc of highlights from Gazzaniga's entry in the lengthy list of works devoted to the subject of Don Juan: Don Giovanni Tenorio, which premiered in Venice in February, 1787. This date places Gazzaniga's opera some seven months earlier than Mozart's masterpiece, the subject of my next several posts.

Gazzaniga's libretto was supplied by Giovanni Bertati. Many commentators have speculated that Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart's collaborator, "was familiar with" or "may have known" Bertati's work.

That's a bit like saying the producer's of the current CBS re-boot of Magnum, P.I. "may have been familiar" with the Tom Selleck original of the 1980's.

A quick comparison of the two men 's work makes it clear that da Ponte relied heavily on Bertati; many scenes are exactly parallel, with parallel numbers. Read da Ponte's memoirs, however, and you'll find Bertati unacknowledged; he produced Mozart's text, it would seem, in a glorious rush of coffee-fueled inspiration.

Whatever! In fact, other than re-wording the arias and ensembles, da Ponte's most original contribution was the fleshing-out of the dramma giocosa to full-length dimensions with the addition of a couple of scenes; namely, from the beginning of Act II. These include the episodes in which Giovanni and Leporello exchange clothes; Giovanni's serenade "Deh vieni alla finestra"; and Leporello's disguised wooing of Elvira. Bertati's scenario resumes when Giovanni and Leporello encounter the statue and invite it to dine.

 The good thing about the similarities between the two operas is the opportunity for side-by-side comparisons of the two composers. It's instructive in that Mozart's vastly superior skill-sets as a musical dramatist stand out in stark contrast to those of Gazzaniga, who is revealed to be a competent mediocrity.

Having said that, it's important to clarify something: Gazzaniga's aim was NOT to create an immortal, timeless masterpiece of cosmic grandeur and real-as-life psychology. His intent was to treat the Don Juan subject more or less as all previous dramatists had: as a low-comedy sex romp. Sexual licentiousness was not considered an appropriate topic for elevated drama. It was up to Mozart to transform the material into an art-work for the ages.

Let's be content with three examples. In all cases, the links displayed will take you to YouTube tracks of the individual numbers.

EXAMPLE ONE: LEPORELLO
First up: the opening arias for Giovanni's servant. In both cases, the operas' overtures are followed by solos for Leporello (in Mozart) and Pasquariello (in Gazzaniga). In both cases, the disgruntled side-kicks are griping about having to stand guard while Giovanni canoodles with beautiful women; they're sick and tired, they want you to know, of being underpaid, sleep-deprived servants.

What strikes you about Pasquariello's "La gran bestia è il mio padrone"? Is it horrible? Are the orchestration, vocal writing or musical materials amateurishly unlistenable? No, not really. To the casual listener, Gazzaniga sounds fine; one might even mistake his music for Mozart. They certainly share essential elements of style. But in what way does it characterize Pasquariello? The music seems awfully generic: a buffo aria out of central casting.

Now listen to Leporello's version, "Notte e giorno faticar"; Mozart's skill at making every note dramatic rather than merely pleasant pops right out. The orchestral introduction alone accomplishes two things. First, this figure describes what Leporello is physically doing.
Mozart could not be clearer: Leporello is pacing back and forth. To be honest, it drives me crazy when, in performance on stage, the artist stands without pacing. The physical action is mandated by the theme. Why ignore Mozart's image of the impatient servant? 

Second, it also depicts a peasant's heavy footsteps; this man is no graceful aristocrat. So there is wit in the elegant orchestral flourish at his words "Voglio far il gentiluomo" ("I want to be the fine gentleman"). In mere seconds, Mozart has deftly drawn a vivid sketch: a lowly peasant pacing back and forth with heavy footsteps who dreams of rising above his station. That, by the way, is a fantasy that he briefly experiences at the top of Act II when he wears Giovanni's finery.

EXAMPLE TWO: ELVIRA
I wrote about Elvira's brilliant aria "Mi tradi" in another post a few weeks ago, and I'll have more to say about her in a future post.  But again, it's highly instructive to compare this number to Gazzaniga's version, a perfectly lovely cavatina entitled "Povere femmine"

Gazzaniga's effort has a lot going for it: it's a model of Classical restraint, formal balance and graceful vocal writing. But, perhaps even more so than in the Pasquariello aria, the word "generic" really fits. Listen to the aria again: what in this music is specific to Elvira's situation? Couldn't this music be equally appropriate for a song in praise of Nature ("Ah, the beauty of the verdant meadow and the leafy forest"), or a contemplation of the goodness and mercy of God?

You bet it could.

Mozart, on the other hand (and as noted in that post about Mozart arias) came up with a truly brilliant stroke of genius: a musical figure that, in performance clearly suggests a looping, circular contour.
As this figure is repeated over and over and over throughout all sections of the Rondo structure of the aria, the cumulative effect is stunning. We hear, with our own ears, that Elvira's mind is running in circles: "I hate him... I love him... I hope he dies... I hope he takes me back". She's like a hamster racing endlessly on a treadmill. She can't make it stop; she can't let go. 

This particular performance has the useful feature of presenting the musical score unfolding in real time as the music is played, thus allowing you to visually see the "loop motif" recur, sometimes in the voice, sometimes in the woodwinds, sometimes in the strings. (The aria begins at about 1:52 following the recitative.)

Find me a better example of an abstract musical figure absolutely nailing an obsessive-compulsive disorder and I'll give you a cigar.

Finally, let's check out:

EXAMPLE THREE: THE STONE GUEST
What factors that led Mozart to treat the damnation of Giovanni with such utter gravity, with music that can still inspire terror, will be the subject of another future post. But it's worth noting that I don't fault Gazzaniga for failing to invest his statue-man with music of cosmic mystery. His goals were modest: a tuneful, entertaining sex comedy.

But GOOD GRIEF - I'm sorry, but even on those terms, this music is INEPT. The Commendatore's first words begin at about 1:05 of the statue scene. There is no attempt by our composer to give the creature any kind of unearthly or even spooky utterance. This statue sounds pompous, stuffy and boring. He sounds like the mayor of a small town at a ribbon-cutting ceremony speaking to a gathering of citizens for the opening of a new strip mall. He sounds like a corporate CEO giving the quarterly earnings report at a board meeting. Hey, Gazzaniga: TRY HARDER.

One of Mozart's achievements in his version of this scene, one I think is often overlooked, is his creation of a non-human musical language for his Commendatore. The creature is not given conventional melodic lines; his utterances are stiff and mechanical. Pay attention to the disjunct, angular contour of the statue's lines "Ferma un po'! Non si pasce di cibo mortale chi si pasce di cibo celeste". The statue can speak, but sounds a bit like the disjointed speech of robots in vintage TV shows. It's extremely creepy.

In short, Gazzaniga's failure is in mistakenly thinking that it's the job of the libretto to define character and tell the story, whereas his role was limited to providing conventionally pleasant music that people would enjoy. 

But that's backwards! This is OPERA, where it's the music that tells you what's going on more clearly and evocatively than mere words can ever do. Mozart's entire score is an object lesson in how to infuse every number - and even every note - with dramatic and psychological meaning.

Two similar libretti. Two dissimilar composers. It makes all the difference between hackwork and a masterpiece.




October 11, 2018

Final comments on the music of Street Scene

The music of Kurt Weill's Street Scene is like a meal where the menu consists of a grilled cheese sandwich, chateaubriand, hot fudge sundaes, collard greens and gummy bears.

Image result for langston hughes
Langston Hughes, lyricist
Funny thing about Mozart - there's never a moment where he inserts a ragtime number or a polka, but that's just Wolfgang for you. Weill's strategy of juxtaposing wildly contrasting genres and styles, often with jarring effect, is a deliberate calculation. Does it work? It helps if you just sort of go with it. Does it succeed? As someone who composes myself, I've come to think that the only way to define "success" in music composition is via this standard:

Did the music turn out as the composer intended? Does it sound exactly as he hoped it would? Is it in fact the composition he meant to create?

If "yes", "yes" and "yes", then BANG: he succeeded. How it's greeted by the rest of us is not always relevant. Street Scene rings the bell from this point of view.

I'm intrigued by the duet for two nannies in Act 2, in a moment after the excitement of the murders and Frank Maurrant's arrest have died down and left the neighborhood in an uneasy quiet. The nannies croon a lullaby to infants in strollers, even as they peruse tabloid papers. The lyrics alternate between lines of nanny-like phrases and lurid references to the violence ("Hush, tiny tot; it shows where they got shot").

What I find intriguing here is that Weill momentarily seems to revert to the quirky, satiric, heavily ironic style of his pre-American collaborations with Bertold Brecht. The Threepenny Opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and The Seven Deadly Sins are nothing if not bitterly satiric and heavily ironic. Once landed in New York City, however, Weill "read the room", so to speak, of his new home and realized that such qualities were decidedly NOT to the American taste. Americans, he saw, are big on sentiment and sincerity, likely accounting for the relative lack of popularity of his European masterpieces in the USA.

But "Sleep, baby dear" is completely satiric and ironic! The disconnect between the languidly somnolent tune and the words eagerly recounting the bloodshed is an "in your face" gesture. I wonder if Weill realized he was momentarily abandoning the new-found earnestness of "Wrapped in a ribbon", "Somehow I never could believe" and the other numbers?

As noted in a previous post, virtually every number seems to be an homage of some sort, summoning up the varied styles and genres of mid-century American popular music. This includes one moment of Weill's self-homage - at least, in my opinion.

This happens in the "Ice cream sextet", an exuberant parody of Italian opera's tradition of concerted ensembles (I'm lookin' at YOU, Donizetti...). In the middle of the piece, following a robust opening more or less in the vein of a tarantella, Lippo Fiorentino waxes lyrical as he begins an ardent paean to American lunch counters where you can get every type of food you could want. His neighbors begin rapturous recitation of their favorites. Lyricist Langston Hughes indulged himself with a somewhat dubious quartet of rhymes: 
"You can get chicken hash;
You can get potato mash;
You can get summer squash;
But I want succotash"
Do "squash" and "hash" really rhyme? Well, never mind...

I believe Weill told Hughes that he needed such a rapturous recitation of favorite foods because he wanted to salute his final European composition, The Seven Deadly Sins. In the "Gluttony" movement, Anna's family back home in Louisiana have a similarly rapturous recitation:
"Crab meat; pork chops; sweet corn; chicken; and those golden biscuits spread with honey."

A self-salute for those with ears to hear it.

A final detail that makes me smile is found in the opening number of Act 2; a children's singing game led by young Willie Maurrant with a bunch of his friends. As the song nears its end, all the kids suddenly break out with "Hey baba rebop, hey baba rebop". What's so notable about that? Bear in mind that Street Scene premiered in 1947. As it happens, the previous year saw the release of a swing/blues song by Lionel Hampton called "Hey baba rebop"; You can hear it on this Youtube video.

I really like the fact that, in the totally fictional world of Street Scene, Hampton's song (which spent sixteen weeks at No. 1 on the Rhythm & Blues charts and made it as high as No. 9 on the national hit parade) is a real song, one these fictional children hear on the radio every day and have incorporated into their street game.

It's just another instance of Kurt Weill absorbing and utilizing yet another style of mid-century American music as he found it, assembling them all like colors on a painter's palette.

How very unfair that an unhealthy life style caught up with Weill far too soon, taking him at age 50. How might he have refined his search for a viable voice for American Opera? We can't know.


October 5, 2018

Cafeterias and Tootsie Pops: the music of Weill's Street Scene

I have two food-centric analogies to help me convey the essence of Kurt Weill's approach to the music of Street Scene:

It's a cafeteria. It's a Tootsie Roll Pop.

Any questions? ...Yeah, you probably need a little more detail. Gotcha.

HOW IS IT A CAFETERIA?
When you eat at a cafeteria, you are presented with an array of entrees: meat loaf, baked chicken, ham, lasagna, fish. The entrees are selected to represent the most popular dishes possible.

The musical numbers in Street Scene reflect the composer's experience of observing and absorbing the state of American popular music during the twelve years from his arrival in America in 1935 and his opera's premiere in 1947. As noted in my previous post, this was a golden period during which such giants as Rodgers, Loewe, Berlin, Porter, Bernstein and Gershwin were doing brilliant work, as were the great bandleaders of the Big Band era.

In my view, Weill deliberately evoked the styles of several of these masters; virtually every number in Street Scene is an homage to a particular composer.. He had a two-fold reason for this scheme:
  1. The diversity of styles and genres seemed an appropriate match for the notable diversity of characters making up the cast: African-American, German, Irish, Swedish, Italian, and so forth.
  2. I believe Kurt Weill was, in effect, sending a message to his American colleagues. The message? "We composers need to find a distinctly American musical language for opera, or we'll end up writing niche works for a niche opera. American music is rich and fertile and full of potential. There is no reason that any or all of these diverse styles can't be employed in the service of opera. Don't be afraid to write a serious opera with popular styles - after all, that's what Rossini did, isn't it?"
Okay, I'm taking a few liberties at putting these words in his mouth, but I think I'm on the right track.

In this regard, let's take a look at some examples of Weill deliberately appropriating another composer's style:
  • "Ain't it awful, the heat". The opera opens with three neighbors kvetching about the sultry weather in New York; a heat wave that, surely, is a metaphor for the oppression suffered by the residents of the tenement house, in which poverty and ethnic tensions make life a trial to be endured. The musical style is laid-back jazz, notably evoking Gershwin.
  • "I got a marble and a star" Here we have a blues number sung by an African-American character whose music reveals a likeable, easy-going nature and a contentment not dependent on material possessions. We are expected to recognize an homage to "I got plenty o' nothing" from Porgy and Bess.
  • "Wrapped in a ribbon and tied in a bow": Young Jennie Hildebrand's joyous celebration of her graduation day is charming, sweet, and a tiny bit corny. The music is pure Rodgers and Hammerstein. This number is in R&H's ingenue vein, calling to mind "I am sixteen going on seventeen", "I'm as corny as Kansas in August" and "When I marry Mr. Snow".
  • Wouldn't you like to be on Broadway?: This number for Harry Easter, Rose's smarmy boss, has something of the Tin Pan Alley milieu of Irving Berlin
  • What good would the moon be? Rose's reply to Harry is a no-brainer: this song is pure Cole Porter. Further, it seems to suggest a particular Porter song: "Night and Day" from his 1934 musical The Gay Divorcee. Rose is no ingenue like Jennie; this is music for a sophisticated urban woman. Rose's ascending chromatic vocal lines correspond nicely to the descending lines in the Porter song.
  • Moon faced and starry eyed. When Mae Jones and Dick McGann (two otherwise minor characters) feel Dick's gin hitting their systems, they sing a song that is followed by a raucous swing dance that sounds as if the DNA of Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller were somehow combined to create worthy new voice of Big Band. It's interesting that Weill out-sourced the orchestration of this number to a Broadway arranger rather than attempt it himself.
I could go on, but you get the idea, and there's a Tootsie Roll Pop question on the table.

HOW IS IT A TOOTSIE POP?
You've had Tootsie Pops, right? It's two candies in one! The outside is a light, crunchy, sugary fruit-flavored shell. But in the center is a DARK AND CHEWY CORE.

All the numbers listed above are pop styles of one kind or another. The pop genres, with one important exception, belong to the supporting characters: the residents of the tenement house, or the visitors like Harry Easter and Dick McGann. This is the light, fruity shell.

The DARK AND CHEWY CORE? This is the world of the four characters making up the serious tragic verismo-style plot. They are Frank and Anna Maurrant, their daughter Rose, and the bookish young Sam Kaplan. Whenever the focus turns to the Maurrant's loveless marriage and the star-crossed love of Sam and Rose, there is an abrupt shift in musical language. The vocal styles feature traditional operatic writing, calling for big dramatic instruments and extended range. The orchestral writing becomes symphonic, as opposed to the lighter, more traditionally Broadway sound of the pop numbers. Some illustrative highlights and notions about them:

Frank Maurrant's entrance. The dialogue as Frank joins his neighbors upon arriving home from work is underscored by ominous orchestral underscoring. It's easy to focus on the spoken lines rather than pay attention to the orchestra, but then one can miss an important motif introduced immediately in the strings: 
Opera-savvy listeners who note this short musical idea will immediately understand how the drama will end: Frank is going to kill his wife. They will know this because they can connect it with a similar motif (long note followed by four quicker ones) in Bizet's Carmen: the so-called "Fate Theme":
Anna's aria "Somehow I never could believe". This composition was a sticking-point in the collaboration between playwright/librettist Elmer Rice and Weill. The aria is redolent of Puccini-like devices in both vocal writing and orchestral gestures. At seven and a half minutes long, Rice was sure the number would kill the show dead in its tracks. Weill, who had firm and specific goals for this "Broadway Opera", refused to cut so much as a note. He had his way, and he was right: we need to hear Anna express her state of affection-starved misery at some length in order to feel empathy for her. Without empathy, she's merely an unfaithful wife, in which case her death is less tragic. 

Sam's solo "Lonely House". This, perhaps the best-known excerpt in Street Scene is vocally grateful for the tenor voice. More importantly, it is the most successful fusion of vocal writing that demands classical technique with a jazz-based accompaniment. It also seems the most "Weill-ian" in that I hear no particular synthesis of another composer's style. \

By the way, Langston Hughes's lyrics for "Lonely House" contain a bit of imagery uncomfortably close to one used by another poet some years earlier. At one point Sam sings:

“Unhook the stars and take them down”.
Nine years prior to Street Scene, W. H. Auden crafted the following lines in his 1938 poem "Funeral Blues": 
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,

It's reasonable to assume that Hughes would have been familiar with Auden's work. Was this a conscious or unconscious bit of borrowing?

Sam and Rose's duet "We'll go away together"
Of equal importance to the plot line of Frank and Anna's doomed marriage is the bittersweet aborted romance of Sam and Rose. They are given no fewer than three substantial duets, ranging from perfumed operetta style to Sam's final heartbreak. "We'll go away together" occurs in Act 2; Sam summons up the nerve to propose an escape for the two of them to a happier life. Rose, in misery with her father's cruelty and her mother's scandalous affair, is tempted to take him up on it. The music is lyrical and buoyant; it could almost be Viennese operetta a la Franz Lehar. 

However, Weill inserts a telling harmonic touch that, for those with ears to hear it, foreshadows their eventual breakup. Here is the initial phrase of the main theme:
The final two bars feature a moment of bitonality: E flat major in the accompaniment and F major in the melodic line. Let's assume the former stands for Sam and the latter for Rose. The two harmonies don't match; they create a dissonance. Sam and Rose are not in agreement; they're in different keys. Lehar would have put both lines in E flat. Weill's bitonality is code; it's telling us that, for the foreseeable future, Sam is the square peg in the round hole of Rose's life.

We'll wrap up Street Scene next week with a few more insights on the music.




September 22, 2018

Golden Era: American Musical Theater during Kurt Weill's years in America

Rodgers and Hammerstein
By Press photo - ebay, Public Domain
By the time Street Scene premiered in 1947, Kurt Weill had been in the United States since 1935. The period from his arrival until his premature death in 1950 marked a particularly memorable era in the history of American music theater. A dazzling group of geniuses were at the height of their creative powers, leaving an array of immortal works. Here's a list:

George and Ira Gershwin: Porgy and Bess (1935)

Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart: On Your Toes (1936); The Boys From Syracuse (1938); Pal Joey (1940)

Marc Blitzstein: The Cradle Will Rock (1937)

Harold Arlen: The Wizard of Oz (1939); St. Louis Woman (1946)

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II: Oklahoma (1941); Carousel (1943); Allegro (1947); South Pacific (1949)

Irving Berlin Annie Get Your Gun (1946)

Leonard Bernstein On the Town (1944)

Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe: Brigadoon (1947)

Cole Porter: Kiss Me, Kate (1948)

Weill immersed himself in all of this, observing, processing and internalizing the point of view, the energy and the musical genres of American musicals. He clearly realized that the cynical and satirical political messages of his previous collaborator Bertold Brecht were foreign to the American zeitgeist. It wasn't that American theater shied away from powerful social messages; far from it. Rodgers and Hammerstein, in particular, brought new dramatic weight to the form of the musical with
  • the violent death of a principal character in Oklahoma (not to mention the innovation of a ballet);
  • domestic abuse in Carousel; and
  • racism in South Pacific
The main difference between these examples and Brecht's so-called "epic theater" was the complete lack of irony west of the Atlantic. Brecht famously and purposely removed the audience's ability to be engaged by the story or empathize with the characters. Deliberate artificiality forced the patrons to focus on the politics of the play in question.

In The Threepenny Opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and The Seven Deadly Sins, Weill chose a musical language fully as ironic as Brecht's libretti. The music was tuneful, quirky and heavy with irony.

On record as acknowledging Richard Rodgers to be his chief rival and competition on the Broadway Scene, Weill adapted his musical approach, willingly crafting music that, while as tuneful as ever, would appeal to the American public. This new version of Kurt Weill composed music with honest sentiment, charm, and a more traditional dramatic technique. Thanks to the notoriety he had gained in Europe, many of the bright lights of the New York theater scene were happy to work with him, including Ira Gershwin, Alan Jay Lerner, Moss Hart...

...and, of course, Elmer Rice and Langston Hughes, his Street Scene co-creators.

My next post will examine the Street Scene musical score in some detail. I'll float a couple of theories about the choices Weill made in selecting the widely diverse musical styles and genres of the opera. There had never before been a score like this one, and there'll never be another like it again.

And that's just how he wanted it.

September 16, 2018

The perpetual relevance of Street Scene


The delightful musical score of Weill's Street Scene is the reason the opera should be performed in 2018 and beyond.

It's astounding social relevance is the reason it must be performed.

And contemplated.

And discussed.

Virginia will see to the performances beginning Sept. 28. Contemplation & discussion herewith provided.

Bottom line: virtually every issue currently dividing the United States into warring political "tribes" is at the forefront of this 1947 opera and (even more remarkably) Elmer Rice's 1929 Broadway play. Doubt me? Here's the list of the themes that, together, make up the message of Street Scene:

The #MeToo movements
Domestic abuse
Gun violence
Immigration
Law and order
Socialism vs. capitalism, as espoused by a character who eerily espouses the familiar talking points of Sen. Bernie Sanders

Yikes.

Let's start with the last issue fijrst. Early in the piece, we meet one of the cantankerous residents of the tenement house: Abe Kaplan. Abe is a highly opinionated old coot who reads newspapers in Hebrew and will begin lecturing on the evils of capitalism at the drop of a hat. Like Sen. Sanders, Abe rails against a system in which the country's wealth is in the hands of the few at the top, while the workers have nothing. When his neighbors are inclined to celebrate America's "prosperity", Kaplan scornfully points out that the destitute Hildebrand family, who live on an upper floor, will be turned out into the street for non-payment of rent. Here's an excerpt from his oft-repeated lecture:

OLSEN:
We’re plenty rich, dis country.

KAPLAN:
Sure, de reech is plenty reech. But upstairs a woman wit three children can’t pay de rent and our bourgeois laws gives to the landlord de right to toin her in de street.

MAURRANT:
And if you was to divide up all the money in de country, in six months it would be right back where it is now.

KAPLAN:
Who is talking about dividing money? We must hev a new conception of society, based upon human need, not human greed, and dis will require maybe a revolution.

Sound familiar? It should - it's Sanders' stump speech with an immigrant's accent.

Speaking of immigration, that's another hot-button issue common to 1929, 1947, and 2018. Here's another excerpt, in which Frank's belief in Law and Order also finds voice:

MAURRANT: 
(to Kaplan) Yeah? Well, we don’t want no revolutions in this country, see?

MRS. JONES:
I know all about that stuff – teachin’ kids there ain’t no Gawd an’ that their gran’fathers was monkeys.

JONES:
Free love, like they got in Russia, huh?

MAURRANT:
There’s too doggam many of you Bolshevikis runnin’ aroun’ loose. If you don’t like the way things is run here, why in hell don’t you go back where you came from?

SHIRLEY:
Everybody has a right to his own opinion, Mr. Maurrant.

MAURRANT:
Not if they’re against law and order, they ain’t. We don’t want no foreigners comin’ in, tellin’ us how to run things.

MRS. FIORENTINO:
It’s nothing wrong to be a foreigner. Many good people are foreigners.

MAURRANT:
I’m not sayin’ anything about that…

SHIRLEY:
It’s no disgrace to be a Jew, Mr. Maurrant.

MAURRANT:
I’m not sayin’ it is. All I’m sayin’ is, what we need in this country is a little more respect for law an’ order. 

Have you heard politicians talk like this? National leaders? Some of your neighbors? Family members? I certainly have. Frank Maurrant may not have had to deal with émigrés from Africa, Viet Nam, Myanmar or Muslim countries, but in his day people from Germany, Ireland and Italy were subjected to the same hostility. In the end, to folks like Frank, a foreigner is a foreigner, and they bring trouble.

As for domestic abuse, Street Scene confirms what we have learned about this phenomenon: it doesn't have to entail physical beating. Emotional abuse is enough. Frank's wife Anna is trapped in a marriage in which she is subjected to daily criticism, criticism, accusations of being a bad wife and a bad mother. It's a marriage in which the least scrap of affection of intimacy long ago shriveled and died. She's blamed for any way in which life is not perfect; she gets no credit for anything she does for the family. It is not really Anna's infidelity that leads to violence; it's truly Frank's long-term abuse that creates the environment for the tragedy that befalls the Maurrants.

As for gun violence, it hardly needs to be stated that the sins of Anna Maurrant and her lover Steve Sankey did not merit the death penalty. Did Frank own his gun legally? In 1929 it was likely a moot point. According to this timeline of gun control laws in the United States, gun owners were not required to have a license until passage of the Federal Firearms Act of 1938, by which time Anna and Steve were cold in their graves. But it may be fair to speculate that behavior like Frank's may have led to the recognition that greater regulation might be the wiser course.

And that leaves...

….sex.

The privilege and entitlement of the men in Street Scene ranges from unwanted groping and kissing to much subtler manifestations. Here is a summary:

Daniel Buchanan, a comic character intended to be seen as a "nice guy", Daniel spends Act 1 in a nervous frenzy in anticipation of the birth of his child, expected at any moment. His #MeToo moment doesn't rise to sexual assault, but it's there: a song in which he claims, quite seriously, that childbirth is harder on the father than on the mother. Dan, Dan, Dan.... don't say stuff like that out loud, fella - it's a really bad look.

Mae Jones, daughter of the neighborhood busybody Emma Jones, appears toward the end of the first act. She's been on a date with a local swell named Dick McGann. She's ready to call it a night, but Dick wants a kiss. He makes his move, but Mae is not in the mood. Dick complains, leading to a really great line for Mae: "You seem to think I oughta hang out a flag every time some jerk decides to wipe off his mouth on me, Dick"/ Dick pleads his case in a song and dance in the form of a jitterbug. That, and some swigs from Dick's flask of gin, leave Mae in a more pliable condition. Dick gets his way; they exit to spend the night together. When she comes home in Act 2, Mae is in low spirits, obviously experiencing some regret. 

Rose Maurrant, however, is the character who spends the entire drama dealing with men who regard women as their personal property. Her first entrance is in the company of her boss, Harry Easter. They had to work late at Harry's real estate office, followed by dinner and some dancing. This dialogue ensues (NOTE: Harry is a married man. Of course):

EASTER:
Rose, I’m crazy about you.

ROSE:
Please let me go now, it’s awfully late and my father doesn’t like it when I—

EASTER:
Kiss me good night.

ROSE:
No.

EASTER:
Why not, hm? Just one kiss.

ROSE:
No.

EASTER:
Yes. (He takes her in his arms and kisses her.)

ROSE:
It wasn’t nice of you to do that.

Rose is also cornered by Mae's brother, a loutish creep named Vincent Jones. His hands are all over her when Sam Kaplan attempts to intervene. Sam gets knocked to the ground for his trouble as Vincent only gives up the harassment when his mother enters.

In her response to these men, Rose is a really good role model for women in 2018  Even Sam, the vulnerable and likeable young pre-law student who's in love with Rose, causes her to consider her position with great maturity and prevent herself from making a bad life-choice. The key exchange occurs in a duet after Anna has been killed, and Frank has been arrested. Sam begs Rose to use these events as the springboard to a new life with him as her partner.

SAM:
There's no hope for us unless we love each other,
Unless I belong to you and you belong to me.

ROSE:
Oh Sam, it's love that I want more than anything in the world.
But loving and belonging -- they're not the same.
Look at my father; my poor mother.
If she had belonged to herself, if he had belonged to himself,
It never would have happened.
And that's why, even though my heart breaks,
I can't belong to you, or have you belong to me.

Isn't it amazing that a female character first created in 1929 would be written to express that degree of enlightened independence? Rose is probably eighteen; she's not college-educated. Yet she's able to look past her attraction to Sam for the long view of their relationship; she's able to foresee patterns of behavior that allow for the possibility of future unhappiness. Rose is a great, great character. 

You know, it isn't as though our country has made NO progress as regards social issues. We've passed legislation in the areas of civil rights, women's rights, health care and other issues of vital concern.

But Street Scene reminds us of how far we have to go to fulfil our goals as a society. We need to hear Abe's hectoring complaints; we need the model of Rose's courage; we need the spectacle of abuse, violence and sexual assault fomenting tragedy.

We need this opera.



September 8, 2018

Street Scene and the Weill-Puccini connection




Kurt Weill: Puccini-minded?
Summer is OVER and I'm pale, exhausted and not-quite-ready.

Okay, enough carping. Time to commence a series of posts preparing you nice people for Virginia Opera's 2018-2019 season. First up: Kurt Weill's 1947 "American Opera" Street Scene.

Raise your hand if you knew Weill's score won the 1947 Tony Award for Best Original Score, beating out classics like Brigadoon and Finian's Rainbow. (This nicely enhances the Pulitzer Prize awarded to Elmer Rice in 1929 for his Broadway play, the source for the opera.) The score is notable for being crammed with references, near quotations and homages to a wide array of composers, poets and musical genres. A future post will offer commentary on these.

Today, however, I want to shed light on the "homage" that, for me, is most striking: Puccini's gritty one-act opera Il Tabarro (The Cloak), one-third of the trilogy Il Trittico.

The arc of the major plot lines of the two works are remarkably similar. In both cases, an attractive woman is stuck in a dreary, loveless marriage to her hard-boiled working-class husband. The woman expresses disappointment with the way her life turned out; her youthful dreams of romance and happiness have turned to ashes. Desperate for affection, she takes on a lover. When the husband finds out, his rage leads to violence and tragedy.

The resemblance becomes undeniable when comparing the arias given to Giorgetta (in Il Tabarro) and Anna Maurrant. Here's Giorgetta giving voice to her restlessness and discontent:

Oh! My dream is quite different! 
I was born in the suburbs, and the air 
Of my Paris is life and joy to me! 
Oh! If some day we could give up forever 
Our vagarious and stupid, bleak, existence! 
It’s no life for a woman in that dark, dingy cabin; 

Here's Weill's Anna early in Act 1, with pertinent lyrics excerpted:

Somehow I never could believe that 
Life was meant to be all dull and gray.
...When I was a girl, I remember, 
I used to dream about a party dress to wear.
But I never had a party dress
And I guess my dreams got lost somewhere.
...Days turn to months - months turn to years,
The greasy soap suds drown our wishes.

Each woman is unfaithful in her marriage: Giorgetta has the ardent dock worker Luigi; Anna has the smarmy milk collector Steve Sankey. Yet Puccini and Weill compel the listener to empathize with them in spite of their "transgressions". The main difference is that whereas Frank Maurrant dispatches both Sankey and Anna via gun shots, Giorgetta's husband Michele is (for the moment, at least) satisfied with strangling Luigi so that he may horrify his wife with the spectacle of the murdered corpse.

It's also useful to excamine the interaction between the two pairs of doomed spouses. Here's a bit of dialogue between Michele and Giorgetta:

MICHELE
Have I ever caused a scene?

GIORGETTA
You certainly have not; you don't beat me.

MICHELE
What? You want me to?

GIORGETTA
To your occasional silences, yes.
I would prefer to be beaten til I am bruised.

Now sample an exchange between Frank and, not Anna, but their daughter Rose:

ROSE
Pop, there's something I've been wanting to talk to you about.

FRANK
Well, what is it?

ROSE
It's about Ma

FRANK
What about her?

ROSE
It's only that if you were a little nicer to her,
maybe everything would be different.

FRANK
Yeah? Where's she got any kick coming?
Ain't I always been a good husband?
Ain't I always looked after her?

ROSE
It's not that, Pop. It's somebody to be sort of nice to her that she wants -
sort of nice and gentle, the way she is to you. That's all it is.

Frank follows that by completely mis-construing "somebody to be sort of nice to her", interpreting Rose's plea as an oblique admission that her mother has a lover. It's simultaneously maddening AND completely understandable. It's maddening in that Rose wasn't talking about Sankey; she means that Frank should be "nice and gentle"; but it's understandable in that Frank, who wasn't born yesterday, is entirely correct in his suspicions about Anna. He sees what, for him, is the big picture.

Two colorful dramas of verismo: eschewing stories of the upper classes; the privileged; the powerful; turning instead to the passions and foibles of the working class.

The question for us now is: are these similarities deliberate? Were Elmer Rice and Kurt Weill familiar with Il Tabarro? Did they intend to create a version set in New York City?

It's a question as interesting to speculate about as it is tricky to arrive at an answer. As for Elmer Rice, he could have known the Puccini opera. Il Tabarro predates the Broadway version of Street Scene by eleven years. I have found no mention of opera in Rice's highly readable autobiography Minority Report, but that's not the same as concluding Puccini was unknown to him.

As for Weill, he was naturally not responsible for the plot line of a play written independently of him a generation before he set to work on his operatic version. Yet there's no doubt that in most cases, the creation of a libretto is a joint collaborative effort between librettist (Rice) and composer (and, in this case, Langston Hughes, the lyricist).

IF Weill was well acquainted with Il Tabarro (and why wouldn't he be?), he may have had a hand in the formation of Anna's aria "Somehow I never could believe" with the aim of making it correspond to Giorgetta's monologue.

Or - it may have been a coincidental case of a familiar verismo trope occurring in two dramas. Complete happenstance.

What do you think?