BGSU Opera Theater brings Kurt Weill’s ‘Street Scene’ to Donnell stage

The cast and crew of “Street Scene” in rehearsal

Northwest Ohio audiences will get to see a rare area production of Kurt Weill’s operatic masterpiece “Street Scene” March 24 and 26. BGSU’s Opera Theater will produce the piece with the help of a $10,000 grant from the Kurt Weill Foundation.

A collaboration between composer Weill and lyricist Langston Hughes, two giants of the arts world, the 20th-century American opera premiered in 1946 and was based on the 1929 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Elmer Rice. Incorporating elements of jazz, blues and popular song with more traditional operatic styles, blended with Hughes’ Harlem Renaissance sensibility, it won Weill a Tony Award for Best Original Score. It is set entirely on the front steps of a New York City brownstone and the adjacent street, and involves the complex lives of the residents of the building and neighborhood, capturing the sense of despair pervading that era.

Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday (March 24) and at 3 p.m. Sunday (March 26) in the Thomas B. and Kathleen M. Donnell Theatre at the Wolfe Center for the Arts. Advance tickets are $15; all tickets are $20 the day of the performance. Call 419-372-8171, go online or visit the box office in the Wolfe Center to purchase tickets.

With its large cast, “Street Scene” provides ample opportunity for BGSU students to showcase their talents. Its combination of jazz and classical styles and theatrical realism, along with being sung in English, offers a new connection to area audiences. “It’s unlike any other piece of opera or musical theater,” said Kevin Bylsma, coordinator of opera at BGSU.

“There are so many lines in it that could be spoken today,” he said. “The story is just as viable today as it was in 1946.”

Bylsma and guest director Nicholas Wuehrmann discussed the upcoming production on WGTE-FM recently. Listen to the podcast.

Wuehrmann travels the world choreographing and directing operas, operettas, musicals and revues. He was last in Bowling Green in 2015, when he directed the Bowling Green Opera Theater production of “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” He is quite familiar with “Street Scene,” having played the role of Sam Kaplan in Ohio Light Opera’s production and served as dialect coach for the Eastman School of Music’s. In addition to his directing and singing career, Wuehrmann has appeared in movies and on TV.

Dr. Emily Freeman Brown will conduct the opera. The first woman to receive a doctorate in conducting from Eastman, Brown has appeared with orchestras across the United States, Europe, in Central Asia and South America. She has recorded for Naxos Records, and Albany Records (with the Bowling Green Philharmonia) in addition to Opus One Records. She served as associate conductor of the Eastman Philharmonia and conductor for the Eastman Opera Theater and was a winner of the internationally known Affiliate Artists’ Conductor’s Program.

Bylsma, also an accomplished pianist and vocal coach, is well-known in the Midwest for his work in art song, opera and oratorio. As head of music preparation for Toledo Opera, he has coached productions of “Tosca,” “The Tales of Hoffmann” and “The Magic Flute.” In addition to his operatic and coaching activities, he serves as assistant organist at the historic Mariners Church in Detroit.

He partnered with Christopher Scholl, coordinator of voice, and Hillary LaBonte, a doctoral student in contemporary music, to apply for the grant.

“It’s really because of Hillary that we got the grant,” Bylsma said. “The Kurt Weill Foundation heard we were doing the opera and reached out to us and offered to provide support, but we had to submit a proposal. Hillary had some experience in grant writing and worked very quickly to put together the proposal. Just before Christmas we found out we’d been accepted, and we were just thrilled.”

The College of Musical Arts is well-known to the Weill Foundation because a number of CMA students typically participate in the foundation’s annual international competition. Participants must present both an operatic and musical theater piece, and some have made it as far as second place, Bylsma said. “So we must be on their radar,” he said. “They’ve been wonderful to work with.”

The Kurt Weill Foundation for Music Inc. administers, promotes and perpetuates the legacies of Weill and Lotte Lenya. It encourages broad dissemination and appreciation of Weill’s music through support of performances, productions, recording and scholarships, and fosters understanding of Weill and Lenya’s lives and work within diverse cultural contexts. Building upon the legacies of both, it nurtures talent, particularly in the creation, performance and study of musical theater.

Updated: 02/24/2020 10:12AM