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November 10, 2009

Sylvia McNair powerful in Weill-filled "Songspiel" from American Opera Theater

A Kurt Weill song can't be mistaken for anything else. There's something tense in the warmest of his melodic lines, something pointed in the simplest of his harmonies. And that's even before you consider the words. Weill was inspired by some remarkable lyricists -- Bertolt Brecht, Ira Gershwin, Walter Mehring, Roger Fernay, Maurice Magre, Maxwell Anderson -- who found fresh ways of addressing the old issues of love and loss.

Out of some 17 Weill songs, American Opera Theater artistic director Timothy Nelson has fashioned an engrossing, even edgy new work called "Songspiel," which opened last weekend at the Theatre Project.

The music comes from such shows as "Happy End," "Mahagonny" and "Lost in the Stars" (the title song from that score isn't an entirely comfortable fit for "Songspiel"). Nelson also mined several of the stand-alone songs Weill wrote that were famously revived and revitalized by soprano Teresa Stratas on the 1981 recording "The Unknown Kurt Weill."

"Songspiel" is first and foremost a vehicle for another stellar soprano, Sylvia McNair, who originally signed on to perform Weill's "The Seven Deadly Sins." When that project had to be scrapped (the Weill Foundation's insistence on a full orchestra proved problematic for the small company), McNair stayed on and Nelson sought another way to capitalize on the possibility of presenting of one of America's most gifted and engaging vocal artists.

His concept for "Songspiel" involves a narrative about

a woman battered by life and nature -- the latter quite literally, with references to Hurricane Katrina. (Interesting how the song "Complaint de la Seine," with its description of bodies and discarded things at the bottom of an iconic French river, can easily conjure up images of the horror in New Orleans.) There is no traditional dialog, just song after song, creating an increasingly detailed portrait of despondency.

The homeless woman, identified as Jenny I, has a history of bruising love affairs, drug abuse and prostitution. In flashback, that life is relived. Woven into this dark world are Jenny II and Johnny, who interact with or merely observe the central character.

If the concept of "Songspiel" doesn't always persuade, if the troubling issues raised by the show don't always get enough context, the result is nonetheless an evening of vivid theater, directed with an imaginative touch by Nelson.

I caught the show last Sunday evening and found McNair a riveting presence. She commanded attention from the start, wearing the rummaged-for clothes of a street person, shuffling onto Charles Nelson's artfully trash-littered set and heading toward a graffiti-splattered bus stop. The soprano's voice was in superb shape, the tone pure and beautiful, the diction crystalline, the phrasing full of nuance. Her delivery of "Surabaya Johnny," "My Ship," "How Much Longer" and "Nanna's Song" proved especially potent.

The supporting cast offered vivid acting. Rebecca Duren (Jenny II) did not always produce a tightly focused sound or articulate words carefully, but proved capable of considerable expressive flair. Todd Wieczorek (Johnny) used his mostly smooth baritone tellingly; some of his high, soft singing created an especially haunting effect. The combo of pianist Eileen Cornett, trumpeter Brent Finchbaugh and bassist Laura Ruas provided consistently stylish support for the show.

"Songspiel" has something substantive to say about all of us, particularly those troubled souls we would have rather not notice. I imagine Weill would have approved.

Two performances remain this weekend.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:19 PM | | Comments (1)


As Director of HopeWell Cancer Support, who is benefiting from this wonderful production, might I say that it is rare to have such a meaningful "collaboration!" Timothy Nelson, Artistic Director of American Opera Theater, was as surprised, perhaps, as we were, that Sylvia McNair would be such a force of inspiration for HopeWell and those we serve.

Ms. McNair performs "Songspiel" with a poignancy that struck a chord in the heart of a fellow breast cancer survivor. Quoted as saying "Cancer is one of the best things that's ever happened to me," Ms. McNair validates publicly what so many people with cancer come to feel as they move through the cancer experience.

In Baltimore, you don't have to "be alone" with cancer. Take a peek at to understand more about our community of support.

And come see "Songspiel" to be inspired! Heartfelt thanks to American Opera Theater and Sylvia McNair for supporting a hometown nonprofit.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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