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Lyric Theater showcases American opera

On the evenings of Oct. 19 and 20, the St. Olaf music department presented Kurt Weill’s “Street Scene” in Urness. Directed by Associate Professor of Music Janis Hardy and Associate Dean of Fine Arts Dan Dressen, the opera was selected for the Lyric Theater program’s annual fall show.

Kerry Auer ’13, Chris Mode ’13, Katie Miller ’14, Devin Hair ’13, Annie Deering ’13, Maria Coyne ’15 and Alice Berry ’14 were featured in leading roles alongside a live orchestra.

The 1946 show is an “American opera” in two acts. It may not be a traditional German or French opera, but the plot tackles heavy themes intermixed with scenes of comic relief. Focused on a multi-ethnic Manhattan neighborhood during a hot spell, characters clash when confronted with gossip and become entangled in love affairs. The jarringly realistic imagery addresses extramarital affairs, the role of family, alienation in the modern world and liberty.

The score, with lyrics by Langston Hughes, includes challenging melodies that require vocal endurance. It gracefully intermixes poignantly deep pieces such as “Lonely House” and playful tunes such as “Ice Cream Sextet.” Although they require trained operatic voices, the songs are inspired by the jazz music of the early 20th century.

“Kurt Weill took operatic arias and other ‘foreign’ musical characteristics and referenced them throughout the show,” Hair said. “Not only does he reference them, but he then uses blues and jazz ideas to color and mix those cultural pieces.”

The performance was well-received by the student body. Memorable performances included sassy, expressive child actors and gossipy middle-aged women.

Hair said that “Street Scene” was a great choice for St. Olaf. “I think it was about time that St. Olaf produced a true American opera,” he said. “The Italian, German and French operas are wonderful and many Americans can connect to them, but ‘Street Scene’ was written to connect with the American people and not just opera enthusiasts.”

The show included such diverse themes and musical elements that it was enjoyable for music students and non-music students alike.

Coyne agreed that the show plays on diverse elements, which added an extra challenge for the performers. “The music for this show is really tricky because it doesn’t quite fit into one category: opera, jazz, musical theatre. It’s sort of a collage of all the genres, which is very unique. However, it made learning the music pretty difficult because of the combination of crazy jazz harmonies and operatic-level difficulty to begin with.”

Despite the many struggles that come with producing an opera, the show proved to be as enjoyable for the actors as the audience.

“It is no secret to the rest of the cast that I absolutely adore the Ice Cream Sextet,” Hair said. “Even though I’m not in the song I find it to be one of the most creative and fun pieces of the show.”

Coyne enjoyed her role as well. “I’d say my favorite part of the show was the fact that I got to eat ice cream on stage and play with a puppy on and off stage. What could be better?” she said.

All of the actors performed exceptionally and appreciated the opportunity to bond with other music students. Besides being a wonderful way to improve musically, the performers formed strong friendships.

“It is rare that you are able to have a cast of such talent and amazing personalities,” Hair said. “Everyone really gave it all to this production, and I can’t imagine doing the performance again without one of them.”

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