Monday, December 20, 2010

Attracted to America

Last night we saw a production of Kurt Weill's 1947 American opera Street Scene* at the Atelier Lyrique of the Paris Opéra.  A couple of weeks ago we saw an excellent full-scale English language production of Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady at the Theâtre du Chatelet.  A few months ago I saw an elaborate production of Jerome Kern's Showboat at the same theater, and last year Scott Joplin's American opera Treemonisha was a hit at that venue.

The audiences for these shows are primarily French and non-Anglophone.  In fact, at Chatelet the English is translated onto supertitles above the stage and monitor at each side.  Trying to translate Alfred P. Doolittle's Cockney slang into French must have been a challenge. The Weill piece was a strange hybrid, in that the songs were sung in English and translated onto the backdrop while the connective dialogue was in French.  Since the characters were meant to be New York immigrant tenement dwellers with names like Kaplan, Fiorentino and Sanchez the subtleties of the dialogue and accents were lost (although the actor playing old Mister Kaplan made a try at a Yiddish accent).

I'm struck by the popularity of American musicals here.  My Fair Lady, with its premise based on British accent-based class divisions, difficult to translate, is virtually sold out.  My friend's 13-year-old French daughter was taken with her class to see it.  She loved it, as did everyone in the large audience the night we were there.

Last year's Treemonisha and this year's Showboat depended on large black casts.  In Paris that typically means African actors and singers and the accents in English are startling to an American ear expecting familiar accents of Mississippi and Louisiana.  Southern the accents on the stage may be, but southern Senegal most likely.  Here non-Anglophones have an advantage since they aren't kept from being immersed in the story by the incongruity of the accents.

The shows' popularity may simply be a reflection of the very large audience for any theater in Paris.  It may be that classics are classics no matter where they come from or where they play.  Whatever the reason, I'm loving it, as French language theater is still beyond my comfort zone.  Maybe next year I'll get to the Comédie Française, but meanwhile, keep the oldies but goodies coming.

*[I had had no idea that Weill's lyricist for Street Scene was the poet Langston Hughes and that Weill won the first Tony award for music for this show, which he considered his masterpiece.  This from the man who wrote The Threepenny Opera!]

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