Gemma Bridge cuts her opera-viewing teeth on Street Scene, Opera North’s latest production, at Leeds Grand Theatre – and finds herself in need of more.
Street Scene, an opera by American composer Kurt Weill, has landed in Leeds. The production was first performed on Broadway in 1947 and since then has toured across the world.
Street Scene was brought to Leeds in 2019 and I was lucky enough to enjoy the show performed by Opera North this weekend. It was directed by Matthew Eberhardt and conducted by James Holmes.
I was told that, for a beginner being introduced to opera, Street Scene would be a good start, since it mixes together the classics of traditional European opera with the upbeat and easy to follow music of American musical theatre and jazz.
On arrival at Leeds Grand Theatre, my first impression was how packed the auditorium was. Literally every one of the 5 seating levels was filled with people eagerly waiting to enjoy the show. I was fortunate enough to be sitting in the stalls, so I was close to the stage and could also see the orchestra playing – which was a great bonus. (I was shocked by how much the conductor, James Holmes, was waving his arms about throughout the whole performance – I think I would have been exhausted had I had to conduct an orchestra for that long!)
I had arrived a little early so had some time to read through the programme – something that I thought would help me follow the story, and it did.
The plotline of Street Scene is simple but sorrowful, telling the tale of an American family, the Maurrants, pushed to breaking point by living in a crowded tenement house in the stiflingly hot New York summer. The show depicts the day to day life of the family, comprised of a mother, father and two children and their neighbours, but also highlights the ups and downs of life at the time. Think children running through the streets, women going about their daily chores and men coming home from work tired and hungry.
The Maurrants are made up of a mother, a father and two children. The father, Frank (played by Robert Hayward) like many of the men, is angry and frustrated at the world around him that is changing way too quickly. Throughout the show he is often drunk, shouting after his daughter or wife – both of whom who are unhappy with the way things are and are searching for a way out. The son, Willie (played by Louis Parker) doesn’t have a huge role, but with sinister irony, is often seen running across the stage playing with a toy gun – an act that sorrowfully intimates later scenes. Hayward played Frank well – his large frame and deep voice really helped to portray the somewhat intimidating characteristics of Frank. Parker, although young, held Willie’s character throughout the performance, and maintained his childlike energy despite the long show.
Frank’s daughter, Rose (played by Gillene Butterfield) is the most obvious dreamer of the females in the Maurrants family. Whilst she works for a real estate agency, many of her numbers highlight how she is dreaming of a better life in the country. Throughout Street Scene she is pursued by male suitors, who she is tempted to follow to a better life. I thought that Gillene portrayed the young Rose well, her songs were honest and the way she held herself and moved across the stage was true to Rose – slightly naive but filled with lofty aspirations.
One of Rose’s suitors, Sam Kaplan, (played by Alex Banfield), a well-read and ‘geeky’ neighbour who had been Rose’s friend for years, is continually seen trying to persuade Rose to go away with him, but she, being keen to make her own path, was reluctant to go. I felt that Alex managed to portray Sam, a timid character, successfully and I appreciated his clear singing voice, which allowed me to understand every word. Highlighting the success of Gillene and Alex in terms of their performances, for me, one of the most moving and honest scenes was one that involved the two together confessing their belief and hope in each other.
The mother of the family, Anna, played by Giselle Allen, a middle-aged woman, is also keen to get out of the life that she lives. In Street Scene she finds a way out via an affair with the milkman, Steve Sankey, played by Paul Gibson, but throughout the story she battles to keep this a secret from the neighbourhood, and she is constantly scared that if the secret is let out, it could tear her family apart. I loved the rich sound of Giselle’s voice and thought she had been really well cast to the complex character of Anna.
However, whenever Anna is out of the house, the neighbours’ gossip of the affair quickly spreads. Despite the secrets and gossip, Anna puts on a brave face and chats with friends. But her songs and demeanour tell of a lady who is scared and stressed by her own existence – for me, this was one of the most impressive aspects of Giselle’s performance.
I don’t want to give too much of the story away but can tell you that as the performance continued it became even more dramatic. Frank’s anger builds and when Anna’s secret comes to light, he becomes violent and lashes out. But, despite the violence, just as happens in real life, things return to normal for most of the characters and the performance ends as it began, with the apartments fully occupied, and ladies gossiping about their neighbours.
The set – the large wooden staircases, apartment windows and suspended street lighting – was cleverly designed and helped to set the scene and tell the story. I also loved how the performers used the set to add height and interest for the audience. For example, in the ice cream scene, one of my favourite parts of the performance, the Italian Lippo Fiorentino, played by Christopher Turner, arrives with ice-cream cones for all the neighbours, and the whole cast dances, sings and swings around the staircases and pillars – a scene that tells the tale of how joyful cold ice cream is on a boiling hot summer’s day. Turner’s Italian accent was very impressive, especially as he even managed to maintain it throughout all his songs.
Here, Mae Jones, played by Michelle Andrews, and her friend Dick McGann, played by Rodney Vubya, return from a night out partying. They dance across the stage singing together, just as you might do with a friend after having a few too many. It was a scene that made me want to get up and dance, too – which is very unusual for me! The on-stage chemistry between Michelle and Rodney was fabulous, especially when they were dancing and kicking the air together.
Although I couldn’t understand every word that was said or sung and would have liked some subtitles, I loved the drama, the rage, the sadness and the music of Street Scene – a play that depicts 24 hours in the lives of an immigrant community in New York. The show was enjoyable to watch, and the songs were memorable. The jazz elements, like the numbers performed by the janitor, Henry Davis, played by Byron Jackson, were fabulous and I often found myself wanted to hum along towards the end of the song. I particularly liked the rich, deep tones that Byron produced during ‘I Got a Marble and a Star’, as his voice took me back to my time in New Orleans.
There were occasions during Street Scene when I struggled to concentrate. As a novice, I’m not sure if that is just the way opera is, if it is my inability to pay attention for long periods of time, or whether this is peculiar to Street Scene. For me, the number of cast members made the show hard to follow – although they all did a great job and I couldn’t find a weak link amongst them.
Hearing such great things about Opera North was my encouragement to experience opera, and I thought that the performance of Street Scene was a fine and engaging piece of theatre. However, as an opera novice, I need to see more performances to develop my understanding and to gain confidence in critique.
If you’re interested to see Street Scene it will be at Leeds Grand Theatre until February 28th and then will be touring until March 20th.