Lost in the Stars and the Quest for American Opera

By Kim. H. Kowalke, President and CEO of the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music

Shortly after Kurt Weill arrived in New York in 1935, George and Ira Gershwin invited him to the dress rehearsal of Porgy and Bess. “It’s a great country where such a work can be written — and performed,” Weill told a reporter, in obvious reference to his own situation as a refugee from Nazi Germany, where performances of his works, including The Threepenny Opera, had been banned. Weill opined that “if there will ever be anything like an American opera, it is bound to come out of Broadway. I’m all in favor of the Metropolitan—as a museum, but not to start a movement of an American musical theater.”

For the remainder of his all-too-brief career in America, Porgy epitomized for Weill the kind of American opera he hoped to create. Faulting Porgy only for “its tendency to tell everything in music,” Weill served as unofficial advisor for its successful 1942 Broadway revival, which replaced much of the recitative with spoken dialogue and managed a run of 286 performances and an 18-month national tour. Teaming up with Moss Hart to convince Ira Gershwin to return to Broadway for the first time after his brother’s death, Weill had established his own box-office credentials with Lady in the Dark (1941). In 1943, the long-running One Touch of Venus (starring Mary Martin) followed close on the heels of the landmark Oklahoma!. Then rave reviews for Weill’s “Broadway opera” Street Scene invited favorable critical comparisons not only with Porgy but with Carousel, the latest of Weill’s leap-frog competitions with Richard Rodgers, his chief Broadway rival in the 1940s.

In 1949 Lost in the Stars would again circle back to Gershwin’s model. The original Porgy, Todd Duncan, headed the predominantly African-American cast, which also included the original Crown, Warren Coleman. Having been unavailable to direct Street Scene, Rouben Mamoulian—the director not only of both the original Porgy and Bess, but also Oklahoma! and Carousel—staged the production with such authority that he could claim to be almost a co-creator of Lost in the Stars.

Opening on October 30, 1949, Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s “musical tragedy” launched a season of “opera on Broadway” that included premieres of Blitzstein’s Regina, Menotti’s The Consul, and Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia. In fact, between the 1942 revival of Porgy and Bess and the failure in 1958 of Menotti’s Maria Golovin, 18 Broadway productions would either explicitly present themselves as operas or be deemed such by critics. Forged in a commercial crucible under fire from the ruthless judgment of a Broadway audience, these operas enjoyed a fate quite different from the 20 operas by American composers that the Metropolitan Opera had produced prior to 1958: the New York City Opera subsequently took 13 of these “Broadway operas” (including both Lost in the Stars and Street Scene) into its repertory. None of the Met’s meager American repertory endured.

Felled by a heart attack at age 50, Weill was survived by his last stage work on Broadway by just three months; Lost in the Stars achieved an initial run of 281 performances (compared to the 16 performances over four seasons of the most successful American opera at the Met). The audacity of producing on Broadway in 1949 an indictment of apartheid as a metaphor for the racial injustice of “separate but equal” segregation in the United States is perhaps best evinced by two related events: cancellation of the national tour of Lost in the Stars because African-American cast members were not allowed to stay in the same hotels as whites, and the long overdue breach of the barrier against African-American singers at the Met—five years after Lost in the Stars had closed on Broadway. In contrast to Porgy and Bess, Lost in the Stars confronted a controversial socio-political issue head-on, more directly even than South Pacific, which had opened on Broadway the previous season.

“For years I’ve wanted to write something which would illuminate the tragedy of our own Negroes,” Weill’s friend, neighbor, and preferred collaborator Maxwell Anderson had written to the South African novelist Alan Paton in March 1948 in an effort to secure dramatization rights of Cry, the Beloved Country. “I think you have said as much as can be said both for your country and ours.” Initially Anderson and Weill envisioned that the principal roles would be entirely spoken, and only the Chorus and its Leader would sing: “to translate your novel into stage form without dulling its edge or losing its poetry would only be possible if a chorus—a sort of Greek chorus—were used to tie together the great number of scenes, and to comment on the action as you comment in the philosophic and descriptive passages.”

But a year later, individual songs for Kumalo and a few of the other black characters had been added, including a trio of decade-old “trunk songs” from a show entitled Ulysses Africanus, originally written with Paul Robeson in mind: “The Little Grey House,” “Lover Man” (revised as “Trouble Man”), and the title song, “Lost in the Stars,” which both Walter Huston and Frank Sinatra had already recorded. Positioned as the finale to Act I, the latter song achieved titular status for the show because the film rights to Cry, the Beloved Country had already been sold, and the Playwrights’ Producing Company hoped to shelter the musical tragedy’s own movie possibilities under a title unrelated to the novel’s. Although Paton otherwise admired Weill’s score for the play, he objected strenuously to the existentialist despair of the title song, in which the “God who’s gone away” misrepresented both his own and Stephen Kumalo’s religious beliefs.

After Duncan had accepted the leading role, Mamoulian pushed the authors to expand the score further in two contrasting directions. “Here is a chance for Kurt’s score to rise to a high operatic level. Let’s have a sweeping powerful aria, deeply emotional and of tragic dimensions, which should conclude with the cry of a loving, bleeding heart, biblical in stature. O Tixo, Tixo, help me!” Still later in the rehearsal process the director asked for a very different sort of 11 o’clock number for Alex, Kumalo’s young nephew: “every laugh, chuckle, or smile that can be honestly brought into our play will be like a drink of water in the desert.” Herbert Coleman’s rendition of “Big Mole” would stop the show nightly, a much-needed break from the nearly unbearable tension of the final two scenes.

Thus, by opening night the score of the musical tragedy unfolded poly-stylistically on three distinct levels: the “operatic” utterances of Stephen and, to a lesser extent, Irina; the “popular” Broadway idioms of “Thousands of Miles” and “Who’ll Buy”; the “tribal” numbers of the Leader and the Chorus, often with lyrics lifted almost verbatim from the novel and with music suffused by “exotic” pentatonic inflections.

Critics debated the proper designation for this dramaturgical counterpoint of styles and genres. In a review titled “Opera on Broadway,” the music critic of the Times deemed it “the best thing Weill has done for the theater” but expressed reservations about the “Broadway touches.” Weill countered, “The real success of the piece to me is the fact that the non-specialist audience accepted a lot of very serious, tragic, quite un-Broadway-ish music of operatic dimensions, together with some songs written in a more familiar style.” Virgil Thomson declared Lost in the Stars a “masterpiece of musical application to dramatic narrative,” its score for a violin-less chamber ensemble “Weill’s finest work of orchestral craft,” and its composer “a master of musico-dramatic design.” “This music does all the right things at all the right times. Its layout is perfection. It is a play with musical numbers, a Singspiel.”

Thomson’s observation implicitly invoked Weill’s other lifelong inspiration for creating hybrid, genre-busting stage works: Mozart’s The Magic Flute. In 1937 Weill had observed that “The Magic Flute was written on commission and in collaboration with a commercial theatre impresario; it is an ideal example of the union of popular music and the highest degree of artistic power.” If, then, Weill’s final work for Broadway took its bearing from the complementary models of Porgy and Bess and The Magic Flute, what made his own voice so distinctive? During an intermission feature for “Opera News on the Air” in December 1949, host Boris Goldovsky asked the composer what it was that makes Weill Weill? “I seem to have a very strong reaction to the suffering of underprivileged people, of the oppressed, the persecuted,” Weill answered. “In the music I wrote for Lost in the Stars, I can see in retrospect that when the music involved human suffering, it is, for better or worse, pure Weill.”

 

Washington National Opera’s Lost in Stars runs February 12 – 20 in the Eisenhower Theater. For more information and tickets, click here.