When it comes to performing arts pedigrees, it's hard to top "Street Scene."
Based on Elmer Rice's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, the opera features music by German composer Kurt Weill and lyrics by poet Langston Hughes. It also beat out both "Finian's Rainbow" and Lerner and Loewe's "Brigadoon" to win the first Tony Award for best original score in 1947.
This weekend, Virginia Opera's new production of the work comes to the Dominion Energy Center, focusing on the tensions and relationships of a Manhattan tenement building in 1946. Though set seven decades ago, conductor Adam Turner says the show remains incredibly relevant.
"It could be written in today's headlines," Turner says. "The social issues of the day, immigration, me too, religious polarization – all that stuff is in this piece."
The opera's two main plotlines concern Anna, a woman having an extramarital affair, and a romance between her daughter Rose and their neighbor. When Anna's husband Frank discovers his wife's affair, things take a violent turn.
Considered a hybrid of opera and the Broadway-style musical, some have referred to the piece as a cross between "West Side Story" and Weill's own "The Threepenny Opera." Blending traditional opera, musical theater, blues, big band and jazz, Weill endeavored to capture the kaleidoscopic contemporary sound of New York, including visiting nightclubs in Harlem with Hughes.
"It has everything you want in a classic, golden-age Broadway musical, but operatic singing and a gripping story," says bass Zachary James, who plays Frank in the show. "It really is a defining piece in American opera."
James, who played Lurch in the Broadway staging of "The Addams Family" and will make his Met debut next season, says his current character is a tough one to portray.
"He's kind of the villain, but also the leading man. He lives in a really dark place, and the challenge of this piece is making him a sympathetic character," James says. "He's got a violent temper, he is losing control of his surroundings and his family, and he doesn't really have the tools, the coping mechanisms, to deal with that."
The role's singing is also a challenge; James compares it to Wagner in its range.
"It's like Olympic singing," he says. "It's the biggest singing that you'll do on an operatic stage, while also being an intimate acting role."
The singing isn't the only part of the production that's oversized in its scope: At one point in the show, nearly 60 people are performing together onstage, including an adult chorus, a children's chorus, two Broadway dancers and a dog.
"Everything but the kitchen sink is onstage," says Turner, adding that in that moment, the cast creates an overwhelming wall of sound together.
Playing Rose, the daughter who must decide what her future will look like, Maureen McKay says its her role is the dynamic one in the show.
"She's a very interesting character to play," says McKay, who recently made her Met debut. "She comes from a family where there's a lot of emotional and somewhat verbal abuse going on [and] she doesn't want to repeat the patterns."
Dorothy Danner, the show's director, says the show should appeal to everyone.
"If you like opera, it has a glorious score," Danner says. "If you like Broadway, it's called a musical theater piece, so it's filled with passion and comedy, love and murder. It has so many elements anyone could get engrossed in this story."
In keeping so many moving parts together, Danner says she's had her work cut out for her.
"It's a challenging piece all around," Danner says. "We're having a very good time. We're finding the weight of the characters. We've been working very hard."
At the end of the day, Turner says "Street Scene" is a tale not too far removed from where we are today.
"It's a story of the American dream: people from various nationalities and backgrounds living together under one roof," he says. "It's just such an interesting story that all of us continue to face today." S
Virginia Opera's "Street Scene" plays at Oct. 12 and 14 at the Dominion Energy Center, 600 E. Grace St. For information, visit vaopera.org or call 866-673-7282.