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The set of Fifty-Third Streetis of 53rd Street, Manhattan, between 5th and 6th Avenues one late Saturday afternoon in the autumn.  The lighting is as if the sun were already low in the sky, though the sun is not visible.  The stage design should be made of photographic images of the actual 53rd Street projected onto scrims.  From the audience view, the stage will be seen as if looking down the street.  On the right is St. Thomas Cathedral in front, and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) beyond.  On the left is the Tishman building with its subway entrance sign in clear view. Beyond this is the Donnell Public Library, and then the American Crafts Museum.  Down the street in the distance can be seen the NBC Building.  All scenes take place on the street – the “street” being the microcosm of the modern New York condition.  The music is continuously active and tries to depict the hustle and bustle of urban life.

The scenario is of several unrelated characters representing several different modern institutions (specifically those mentioned above) and different cultures, all walking along the street and interacting in various ways.  The opera begins with the curtain open, the projected images of new York already in view.  Simultaneously, a sharply attacked dissonant chord from the orchestra is sounded, a blinding white strobe light flash is projected from above the stage into the eyes of the audience, and the entire cast spills out onto the stage from several entranceways, already singing.  As soon as the Audience’s vision has refocused they are aware that a loud, Broadway-like crowd scene is immediately under way, with everyone singing about wonderful “New York, New York.”

The opening tutti is followed by a series of character sketches.  All are unrelated, except that many of the characters have in common a shared revulsion towards the homeless persons present.  The only named character in the opera is “Benny,” one of the street people, and one who was recently forcibly released from a mental institution.  His name has been symbolically taken from the Old Testament’s Tribe of Benjamin, the tribe rejected by all the others (Judges 20).

Tension mounts as the regathering crowd yells for the Policeman to remove the “bums” from the street.  This would appear to be the climax of the opera, but no real change is brought about because of it.  (This is the opposite of most 19th-century operas.)  Shortly afterwards, during a non-climactic moment, but musically the most tense spot in the opera, one of the street persons – who is an amoral, though extremely intelligent total failure in life, and is referred to from here on as “Bum 1” – suddenly kills Benny while fighting over a turkey bone with a little meat left on it, which had been given as a gift to Benny.  Three stylized stabbings with a stiletto are accompanied by three sharp orchestral blasts, and by glaring red, white, and blue strobe flashes, reflecting the opening moment of the work.

The murder scene is followed by the return of several characters who display various attitudes and reactions to the sight of Benny lying prone on a subway grating.  Several are never even aware that he is dead, and the Policeman, in a moment of ironic kindness decides (for just this once) not to disturb Benny and not to send him away.  The body is eventually removed by three street musicians, redressed symbolically as the “Three Fates,” during a balletic scene reminiscent of a “Noh” ceremony.

The opera concludes in a tutti based on the opening crowd scene.  The characters sing the same ecstatic lines of “New York, New York” as they had earlier.  They are unaware of and unaffected by Benny’s death, and they remain in their various desperate or comfortable situations, mostly unchanged.  The orchestra has soured, however, and is at odds with their singing.  Only the audience is left to confront and judge the modern big city condition; the audience member is never allowed to transfer his sense of responsibility or feelings of anger to an outraged or even concerned stage character since none of the characters perceive anything but their own lives.  (The audience is actually being asked to leave the opera hall demanding that there be changes in their world – theoretically at least!)  In the final moment of the opera Bum 1 can be seen sneering from the subway entrance, symbolic of the entranceway to “Hell.”  The music is cut off, uncadenced, with one final strobe blast and a rapidly closed curtain.  The implication of the entire opera is that the failure of modern institutions (i.e., the church, business, art, education, etc.) leaves us all, in a sense, homeless.

The stage lighting dims throughout the opera as if the sun were gradually setting.  The exception to this is the “Noh” ceremonial removing of the body, where all lights, including the house lights, are suddenly and fully turned on – thereby allowing no one during that moment to ‘escape’ from the reality of Benny’s death.  The final tutti, sung in total darkness with only the subway sign glowing eerily, not only parallels the opening, but also moves the work from the secular to the sacral.  An image of Christ Crucified over Manhattan is projected high onto the set.  The opera contains several quotes from different requiem masses, including the well-known Dies Irae change melody, and a prominent “Lamb of God” motive associated with Benny which was borrowed from the Agnus Dei from the Requiem Mass for male voices by Maurice Duruflé . . . . Indeed, the subtitle for the opera could be “Requiem to a City.” 1


1 Jody Nagel, “Fifty-Third Street,” (D.M.A. treatise, The University of Texas at Austin, 1992), 339-341.


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