Simpson welcomes Mo Zhou and a different type of opera

by Larissa Backhaus

After two successful operas in the fall, Simpson College Opera is gearing up for the next show: “Street Scene” by Kurt Weill.
Simpson College Opera has received support for this production from the Kurt Weill Foundation, Inc., which is based out of New York City, New York. This opera was not created like a regular opera because it was created to be more like a Broadway show.
Its creator, Kurt Weill, referred to “Street Scene” as an “American opera” or a “Broadway opera”.
“This show will break all of your stereotypical views of opera,” director Mo Zhou said.
According to conductor Bernard McDonald, “Street Scene” is “quintessentially an American opera about people who just arrived and are trying to live the American experience under very difficult experiences.
“Any idea that you have of opera will be shattered by this,” McDonald said.
This opera contains music ranging from traditional opera pieces, to jazz and blues influences, and some Broadway-style musical numbers. It takes place on the East Side of Manhattan on a blistering hot day in 1946.
“This show is fun because it has all the drama and romance of opera but the fun and energetic ensemble numbers in music-theater style,” said senior Meghan Kasanders, who plays Anna Maurrant.
McDonald said, “The song and dance number is pretty spectacular, musically and physically.”
“Street Scene” centers around two main plots: a tempered man, Frank Maurrant, who believes his wife Anna is having an affair with the milkman, and that a romance between the Maurrant’s daughter, Rose, and Sam, a Jewish neighbor, is developing. It also includes gossiping women and quarrels in the community, along with the increasing conflicts within the Maurrant family.


According to McDonald, “Street Scene” requires a large orchestra for much of the music.


“We have a pretty large orchestra with solid professional players, so that’s a great luxury for us to experience,” McDonald said. “When it’s all said and done, about 100 people will produce the show, so that is a significant percentage of the Simpson campus.”



“Street Scene” is being directed by Mo Zhou. Zhou is a nationally recognized opera director who is a student of famous director, Anne Bogart. Zhou has worked on shows such as “Camelot” at the Glimmerglass Festival and “The Magic Flute” at the Opera Theatre of Pittsburgh where she met Simpson College Opera conductor McDonald. This summer, Zhou and McDonald will work on “Meriweather” together in Pittsburg.


McDonald said Zhou “has experience in Broadway and in professional opera. It’s great for our students to work with a young, upcoming, cutting-edge, powerhouse stage director.”


Kasanders said Zhou is “lots of fun! She is a ball of energy that really challenges us to fully understand and relate to our characters.”


“Working with Mo has been a real learning experience. She has a great energy that fills the room,” said freshman Sara Curtis, who plays a Swedish immigrant.


The student lighting designer is Anastasia Abraham, and Steve McClain is the set designer for this production. Zhou has worked with McClain to design the set differently from any other “Street Scene” set because the tenant houses are angled.


“She is a fire-cracker! She obviously loves what she is doing and it comes across in our acting. She lets us develop our own staging, and then she tweaks it to make it even better,” senior Rebecca Claborn, who also plays Anna Murrant, said.


“The reason I wanted Mo to do the show is because I knew she would bring an excellent, excellent acting pedagogy to Simpson students. They need as much diversity and experience of diversity as they can possibly get,” McDonald said.


Having Zhou, “gives our program an edge that is unbeatable in the U.S.,” according to McDonald.


“Street Scene” will be performed Feb. 28 to March 1 at 7:30 p.m. with a matinee showing on March 2 at 2 p.m.


Several professors and staff are hosting various related activities. On Feb. 20 there is a free showing of the movie “Street Scene,” based on the play in Jordan Lecture Hall at 7 p.m.


“This production is the first in which we substantially tried to embed opera in the liberal arts experience at Simpson College,” said McDonald.


“The people here are so talented,” Zhou said about Simpson. “You have a sense of ownership and community and this kind of compassion and empathy of knowing how things are done.”


She also described Simpson College Opera students as having “a strong water-tight sense of community and identity.”


“There is a specific Simpson air about the opera program and you can see this person right away and say, ‘I think you go to Simpson.’ It’s that clear,” Zhou said.