Conservatory To Honor Iconic German Composer

Vida Weisblum, Arts Editor

A cast of Conservatory voice majors will present their long-awaited fall opera, Street Scene, by famous German composer Kurt Weill, next week as part of a series of events called Weill Week. The week will also include a film screening, academic talks about Weill and an orchestral performance of Weill’s music.

Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Jan Miyake is ultimately responsible for the inception of Weill Week, which is unlike any other past Conservatory project. “[The week of events] is largely in part because the Kurt Weill Foundation exists solely to promote the music of Kurt Weill,” Miyake said, “I wrote a grant last spring asking for help with production costs [ for the opera].” While attempting to secure funding for the opera, which is much more expensive than typical productions, Miyake spoke to the grant officer about other Weill-related events that could potentially come to fruition.

After her initial conversation, Miyake emerged with a variety of ideas, which she included in her grant proposal. “I wanted to tie in the [Allen Memorial Art] Museum and the Apollo [Theatre] and the academic, [which will take the form of ] traditional musicological lectures, which we did,” she said.

Born in 1900 in Dassau, Germany, Weill, whose family was Jewish, was the son of a cantor. His exposure to an abundance of Jewish music at a young age led him to pursue his early musical inclinations. He studied theory and composition under Albert Bing, the master of the theater where Weill was a substitute piano accompanist. He ultimately moved to Berlin to study composition and took miscellaneous musical jobs, including playing organ in a synagogue and tutoring music theory students. He also contributed his own musical criticism to a German radio station.

The composer is perhaps most famous for his close work with German playwright, director and poet Bertolt Brecht. Together they created several radical and populist pieces, many of which incited riots during the Nazi regime. Weill is also known for using his Jewish roots as inspiration for much of his work. Weill fled Germany in March of 1933 with his wife and moved first to Paris, then to New York, not long after Brecht.

In the United States, Weill continued his collaborations with Brecht. The pair produced The Threepenny Opera, which included Weill’s most notable tune, Mack the Knife. The tune has been reprised by many notable artists, including Bobby Darin and Louis Armstrong. His music has also inspired artists ranging from Tony Bennett to Sting.

Some consider Weill’s Street Scene a piece of musical theater, while others have deemed it an opera, due to the traditional sound of the score. Weill’s classical style is complemented by song lyrics by Langston Hughes, and the storyline is based on Elmer Rice’s Pulitzer Prizewinning book of the same name. The story takes place on New York City’s Lower East Side and focuses on two separate narratives. The production has also been reimagined in various media, including a play and a film in addition to the opera.

According to Conservatory junior Joshua Blue, who will play the role of Sam Kaplan, Street Scene includes dialogue, much like a piece of musical theater, but unlike many of the operas the Conservatory has chosen in previous seasons. “When you think of opera, you never really think of any spoken word; it’s almost entirely sung, so that’s been a challenge,” Blue said. “And it’s been interesting to work with people because you get to see how people are as actors as well as singers.” He said the opera is about the negative effects of gossip and how “gossip can ruin lives … and how it can start with just one person.” He mentioned the prevalence of open online forums on campus and how they often spark controversy and tension within the small Oberlin community. Ultimately, he said, “[The play is] all about a lot of people from a lot different walks of life coming together and how they interact with each other.”

Conservatory senior voice major Katherine Skayhan, who will perform the role of Rose Maurrant, shared a similar sentiment: “Weill’s opera works comment on the lives of those trapped by their social conditions,” she said. “I think it’s a great show for students to witness the desperation of life as it was for people in New York City tenements in the 1940s. The opera is extremely emotional.”

Miyake said she is excited to watch the week unfold, especially because the Conservatory has never produced such an elaborate and diverse weeklong program of events; she said that she is especially eager to watch the film Thursday night, which includes a brief interlude of music by Weill during the opening credits. Skayhan, who is particularly looking forward to the Weill cabaret night in Stull Recital Hall and the pre-opera talk on the night of Street Scene, is eager to share her positive experience performing Weill’s music with an audience and larger community. “Weill Week is an amazing opportunity for students interested in Weill and the history of his music, as well as the opera,” Skayhan said. “I think that’s a great way to give audience members context for the show and making their experience at the opera more engaging.”