The American opera “Street Scene” is an intimate slice-of-life, depicting a 1940s New York City tenement community during two days of an unbearable heat wave. To bring it to life for audiences, ISU Theatre, in collaboration with Opera Studio and ISU Symphony Orchestra, is mounting one of its biggest operas in years, with a cast of 40 students and a three-story brownstone apartment set that will rise above the Fisher Theater stage.
“Street Scene,” which opens Friday, Nov. 12 at 7:30 p.m., tells a story of youthful desire, forbidden love and brutal vengeance simmering in a largely immigrant community. As the heat of the day builds, a family eruption changes the community forever.
“We always choose our operas based on the educational value for the students,” said Chad Sonka, assistant teaching professor in the Department of Music and Theatre and co-director of the production. “When we looked at our current students, we said this is the time to do ‘Street Scene.’ It’s pandemic friendly because it has small ensembles on stage, and many of the topics are current as it relates to social issues. Not only will it be engaging intellectually and emotionally for the audience, it’s a fine educational tool for our students. Watching them navigate such interesting, real characters has just been a joy.”
Blending jazz, blues, Broadway and opera
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by Elmer Rice, the “Street Scene” score is written by famed composer Kurt Weill, who fled Nazi Germany for the United States in the 1930s. For Weill, this was the first American show in which he was able to speak to the social and political values that were important to him, said Jodi Goble, associate teaching professor and the show’s musical director.
“Weill immediately brought on board the poet Langston Hughes as his librettist, and Hughes took him into every corner of New York City for research at the height of the Harlem Renaissance,” Goble said. “This show could have only been written when it was written and by the people who wrote it. It’s an important part of American history.”
Weill’s composition lineage ranged from collaborating on theatre pieces with Bertolt Brecht to writing Hollywood musicals with Ira Gershwin. The music, an ambitious amalgamation of jazz, blues, Broadway and traditional opera, helps narrate the story, with each character having their own musical motif on stage. ISU Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Jonathan Govias, will play the music, which won Best Original Score in the inaugural year of the Tony Awards in 1947.
“No one musical style ever really takes over,” Goble said. “It all has to coexist. It’s a fabulous metaphor for all the people living in this building who are from all different places.”
Ordinary lives touched by tragedy and joy
Inspired by a true New York City heat wave, the stifling heat is a catalyst in the show, heightening tensions until they explode into tragedy. But as the human drama escalates, there is also room for everyday joy in the neighborhood.
“There is a celebrated scene where in the middle of this heat wave the neighbors enjoy an ice cream cone together,” Goble said. “It’s the most incredible, complicated operatic singing, but it’s also so accessible. This piece is so recognizably human. The protagonists are imperfect. The antagonists aren’t villains. No one is a stock character. Everyone is a human being. And so I think audiences will see themselves somewhere in this show.”
David Bone, senior in software engineering and music, plays the role of charming and cerebral teenage student Sam Kaplan, in love with Rose Maurrant. Bone said he has been inspired by how approachable the story is.
“It is a very realist opera, centering around normal people living normal lives,” Bone said. “Nearly every character is flawed in some way, which leads to a much more compelling story. This helps the audience grow more attached to the story and its characters. I think the themes of community are especially important today, when support from those around you has never been more important.”
An all-hands undertaking
Opera Studio and ISU Theatre collaborate on a full-scale opera once every three years, and it takes many hands to create a New York City block onstage. The cast and creative team began preparing in August and have collectively put thousands of hours into the production.
Most of the action is set in the windows and on the front stoop of the brownstone building, designed by scenic designer Jay Jagim and technical director Natalie Hining. Kelly Schaefer, associate teaching professor, is designing period costumes for 40 people, which will be created by the ISU costume shop, led by supervisor Doris Nash. The team, which chose to set the show in the 1930s, has done extensive research into historical details, right down to the style of trash can used on the city sidewalk.
“We’re all in love with the set,” Sonka said. “The stoop is fabulous. It has multiple levels, and it makes for a lot of opportunities to creatively tell different stories.”
Understanding community, then and now
As the cast prepares for the show, they have been discussing how the show’s themes relate to current social issues and recent movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter.
Robert Wise, senior in software engineering and music, plays antagonist Frank Maurrant and said the show has made him consider how communities communicate, whether on a neighborhood street or online.
“While some of the more obvious societal issues depicted in the play seem resolved in the modern day, I’d encourage audiences to think about how they persist,” Wise said. “I’ve personally been thinking about how our new digital communities have arguably created a large-scale version of the ‘Street Scene’ community, with some of the problems being exacerbated by our new ways of communicating.”
Morgan Reetz, junior in performing arts, plays German immigrant Greta Fiorentino, and said she also hopes the show inspires audiences to think about the impact words and actions have on others.
“Everything you say and do has an impact,” she said. “This world does not just revolve around you and the other people around you are not just accessory characters in the play that is your life! Every person on this earth has just as complex of a life as yours. Be mindful, give people grace and be kind.”
Performances will be held Nov. 12 and 13 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 14 at 2:00 p.m. at Fisher Theater in Ames. All seating is general admission. Tickets are $25 for adults and free for Iowa State students and youth and can be purchased at the door, through the Iowa State Center Ticket Office or any Ticketmaster. This show contains adult content and language.
Individuals with disabilities are encouraged to participate in ISU Theatre events. If you require a reasonable accommodation to do so, please contact ISU Theatre at least one week prior to the event at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515.294.2624.
Cast, creative team
- Frank Maurrant – Robert Wise
- Anna Maurrant – Sadie Etzel
- Rose Maurrant – Hope Metts
- Willie Maurrant – Ashton Hale
- Emma Jones – Elise Cameron
- George Jones – Ozzie Padilla Sanchez
- Mae Jones – Claire Thede
- Vincent Jones – Zach Harvey
- Olga Olsen – Annika Baker
- Carl Olsen – Cole Stephenson
- Dick McGann – Lincoln Klopfenstein
- Harry Easter – Adam Jensen
- Steve Sankey – Skyler Lee
- Nursemaid #1 – Sophia Pike
- Nursemaid #2 – Kaitlyn Meylor
- Salvation Army Girl #1 – Milan Hale
- Salvation Army Girl #2 – Carlee Carpenter
- Dr. John Wilson – Peter Schumacher
- Officer Harry Murphy – Arthur Bardole
- Jane Henry, City Marshall – Kathryn Ripley
- Fred Cullen – Matthew Mercurio
- Old-Clothes Man – Joshua Kranz
- Ambulance Driver – Marlowe Hamilton
- Abraham Kaplan – Ethan Cooper
- Sam Kaplan – David Bone
- Shirley Kaplan – Izzy Anderson
- Greta Fiorentino – Morgan Reetz
- Lippo Fiorentino – Elias Perez
- Laura Hildebrand – Jessica Fenton
- Jennie Hildebrand – Claire Sattler
- Charlie Hildebrand – Sam McDaniel
- Mary Hildebrand – Taylor Noe
- Daniel Buchanan – Matthew Hennessey
- Mavis Buchanan – Ava Ciaverelli
- Henry Davis – Will Epping
- Grace Davis – Shannon Garrels
- 1st Graduate – Jamie Romano
- 2nd Graduate – Elli Allen
- Myrtle – Rachael Purdy
- Joan – Allie Pauly
- Co-Director – Brad Dell
- Co-Director – Chad Sonka
- Assistant Stage Manager – Ashley Oxenreider
- Scenic Designer – Jay Jagim
- Costume Designer – Kelly Marie Schaefer
- Lighting Designer – Will Coeur
- Sound Designer – Josh Jepson
- Musical Director – Jodi Goble
- Stage Manager – Sarah Coeur
- Choreographer – Valerie Williams
- Conductor – Jonathan Govias
- Costume Shop Supervisor – Doris Nash
- Production Manager – Will Coeur
- Technical Director – Natalie Hining
- Assistant Stage Manager – Robert Duys