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Broadway Opera

Our Composers’ Hope for the Future

by Kurt Weill
as told to Edward J. Smith

Source: Musical Digest, vol. 29, no. 4 (December 1946), pp. 16, 42

Editorial headnote:

Take American opera out of the opera house and into the theatre! This is the battle cry of Kurt Weill, perhaps the most important composer writing for the stage today. Born in Germany forty-six years ago, Weill made his initial success in the traditional European operatic world, but when he came to this country eleven years ago he turned apostate and has since devoted himself exclusively to Broadway, writing Knickerbocker Holiday, Lady in the Dark, One Touch of Venus, and several other scores.

This winter a new Kurt Weill opus comes to Broadway, a serious musical of operatic proportions taken from Elmer Rice’s Pulitzer prize-winner, Street Scene, to be presented by Dwight Deere Wiman in collaboration with the Playwrights Producing Company. With a cast of over 100, including a number of Metropolitan Opera personalities, this production, it is said hopefully, may be the trail-blazer for a new type of American opera.

It is interesting to compare Mr. Weill’s views with those of Billy Rose, which appeared in last month’s issue of THE MUSICAL DIGEST. Rose has faith in opera–if it is streamlined; Weill would concentrate exclusively on Broadway.

Main text:

When I first came to the United States eleven years ago, I became rapidly convinced that the Broadway legitimate stage is to the American public what the opera and concert halls are to the European. With that thought in mind, I have repeatedly aimed my music at the Broadway stage, and today I am convinced that the American public is ready to accept its own form of grand opera on the legitimate stage.

Briefly, let me explain why. In Europe, opera houses and legitimate theatres are subsidized by the state. I was able to compose for them and be assured of a hearing for my works. By the time I was twenty-six I had operas in virtually every major company’s repertoire in Germany. But I was playing to a limited public. My adaptation of the Three Penny Opera (on The Beggar’s Opera theme) and its world success opened my eyes to the vast possibilities in an audience which did not seek opera as its daily fare.

When I arrived in the United States, only the typical jazz musical could seek a successful run on Broadway. Today, times have changed. There are more operettas and more plays with good music in the theatre than at any time in its history, and even more important, the public is demanding seats at an unprecedented rate.

My first Broadway show was Johnny Johnson. This was, in effect, a musical drama with an integrated score, and it proved beyond the capacity of the audience to accept at that time. But I noticed that I could play upon the emotions of these theatre-goers as on an instrument. I had an orchestral effect at one point in the play which drew a reaction which I knew was impossible to secure from a trained European audience. This made me certain I was on the right track. Money was available as well as talent. The latter was exceptional. It is platitudinous to repeat what so many have said before me, but no place in the world is there such acting and singing talent as can be found in America.

I continued to try to advance my theories. Lady in the Dark and Knickerbocker Holiday contained music which could exist apart from the play itself. The dream sequences in the former production, which were all musical, were miniature twenty-minute one-act operas in themselves. The ballet in One Touch of Venus was staged to original music, and was used to tell a story.

Other composers were going the same [page 42] way. Porgy and Bess was unquestionably the greatest, but Carousel, Polonaise and Song of Norway were other ambitious and successful productions.

I have been in the theatre long enough to be realistic about it. For the past fifteen months I have devoted myself to Street Scene. This play is the culmination of my efforts. I hope that its success will be sufficient to open new vistas for American composers. My formula is a simple one. Being a theatrical composer, I have to present my music in a manner which would be accepted by a realistic public. I found only one fault with Porgy and Bess, that being its tendency to tell everything in music. I will have music for seventy-five percent of my story, but twenty-five percent will be dialogue. Sometimes this dialogue will be underscored by the orchestra as a dramatic moment is about to unfold. At other times, no music will be played at all.

I am not calling my work an opera. I would rather term it a dramatic musical. There are certain things one usually expects from opera which cannot be done in a Broadway production. For instance, I have only thirty-five musicians in my orchestra rather than eighty. In order to preserve the realism I cannot tell my whole story in music but must weave the spoken word with song for a blending of these effects. The results are something like Carmen, with its spoken dialogue as presented at the Opéra Comique, or Mozart’s Magic Flute or Weber’s Freischütz. I cannot deal in fantasy because the people in the play are the people we know–with whom we rub shoulders every day of our lives–and one distortion would throw the entire seriousness of the situation out of the window.

I have replaced the recitative with a form of underscored dialogue, and the entire musical score thus becomes a form of story-telling with no music used except for the effect it has on the story itself. I have not attempted to write so-called hit numbers, and while arias in the sense of monologue dramatic sequences exist, they are only for the purpose of heightening the action.

My entire life has been devoted to the theatre, and I have dedicated it to combining the theatre of our time with a higher form of music toward the formation of a permanent musical theatre. If successful in Street Scene, an American musical repertory company would easily be the result, with perhaps two or three other works of a similar nature which could tour the land.

A new outlet for American creative talent will be opened and a new outlet for thousands of fine singers, actors and instrumentalists created. I have dreamed of this all my life. Now it is coming to pass, and I am certain my enthusiasm is not carrying me too far in saying that I know the public is in a receptive mood.

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