Following his success with Street Scene, a work that challenges the traditional views that divide opera from musical theater, Kurt Weill wanted to write something to reflect the tragedy of racism in post-World War II America. It was Mrs. Dorothy Hammerstein, Oscar Hammerstein II’s wife, who introduced him and playwright Maxwell Anderson to the novel that would become Lost in the Stars, Alan Paton’s 1948 novel Cry, the Beloved Country.
Set in a troubled and divided South Africa only a year before the beginning of the Apartheid era, Cry, the Beloved Country tells the story of a nation struggling with racial tension. Long, intensely beautiful lyric passages describing the South African countryside interrupt the straightforward story of a father searching for his son in a city that is miles away from his home and a society that he cannot understand. The novel is a religious text, a social history of South Africa, and an intensely moving story of the South African Everyman.
Weill was immediately attracted to the universal themes of the novel and saw the opportunity to continue his experimentation with blurring the textbook-friendly definitions of genre. The solution was to write a “musical tragedy” which would be a fusion of comedic and tragic elements, classical and popular music. Never one to repeat himself, Weill treated Lost in the Stars as an opportunity to create something new that, as he wrote to New York Times critic Olin Downes, ‘the typical American audience (not a specialized audience) can accept…”
The music that Weill composed is a kaleidoscope of sound and rhythm that takes the audience on a musical journey parallel to the drama. Stephen Kumalo, the Zulu priest who journeys from provincial naiveté into a bleak awareness, first sings simple melodies, but when he must come to terms with the fact that his son, Absalom, has murdered someone, he sings a long, soul-searching soliloquy that mixes the “Soliloquy” from Carousel with Wotan’s Farewell. These moments of operatic weight are balanced by the jazz harmonies and blues rhythms of songs such as “Who’ll Buy?” Linda’s sultry and jazzy Bessie Smith number in Act I, and “Gold,” one of Weill’s most innovative and fascinating tunes, which incorporates the contemporary sounds of be-bop, blues, and boogie-woogie into this provocative song about the poverty and greed which lead to Arthur Jarvis’ murder.
Unifying the text and music is the chorus that assumes the role of the narrator of Paton’s novel and becomes South Africa, the real protagonist of Cry, the Beloved Country and Lost in the Stars. The chorus sings the sounds of the hills in the opening number; they are the train to Johannesburg and the townspeople of Johannesburg, white and black, paralyzed by fear. When Absalom is sentenced to death, the chorus responds in sonorous declamation, “Cry, the Beloved Country,” a hymn of mourning that transcends time and place.
In an interview with the New York Times shortly before the 1949 opening of his Lost in the Stars, Kurt Weill succinctly summarized the message of his new work: “[To] give a picture of the whole world today.” When the racial tension that would lead to the Civil Rights movement was reaching a boiling point, Weill and Anderson were holding a mirror to the American audience. Over six decades later, their message is still sadly relevant in a 21st century world that continues to grapple with fear and hatred. In the final scene, John Jarvis and Stephen Kumalo, the father of the murdered and the father of the murderer, reach out to one another in friendship, their reconciliation a beacon of hope slicing through the darkness caused by hate.
The Glimmerglass Festival will present Lost in the Stars, in a coproduction with Cape Town Opera directed by Tazewell Thompson, from July 22 through August 25. Acclaimed bass-baritone and 2012 Glimmerglass Artist in Residence Eric Owens sings the role of Stephen Kumalo.