Fifty-Third Street: A New Opera Addressing the Marginalization of the Homeless in America
What is Fifty-Third Street?
In 1992, Jody Nagel wrote a 90-minute one-act opera entitled Fifty-Third Street as his dissertation project for the University of Texas at Austin. The librettist is Seth Wolitz, then a University of Texas faculty member. The opera examines the lives of two homeless men on 53rd Street in New York City, and the reactions toward them from various facets of society, including the church, art institutions, businesses and tourists. Nagel completed the vocal/piano score in 1996 and the orchestration in 1997. The score, primarily the orchestration, underwent some revisions for its world premiere in 2006-2007 which took place on the campus of Ball State University on April 12 and 15, 2007. The work provided an opportunity for the community of research and voice students at BSU to interact with a living composer and to premiere an all-original American opera.
Fifty-Third Street utilizes 13 vocalists, two non-singing roles, three street musicians (non-singing actors who must perform or mime their instruments onstage) and an optional chorus. Nagel now offers two orchestral versions-- it is orchestrated for either a medium-size traditional western orchestra or for a smaller chamber orchestra and keyboard (the latter served as the orchestral arrangement utilized for the opera’s premiere). The opera is through-composed, but demarcated by 18 scenes, each of which indicates the entrance of a new character or set of characters.
Set & Synopsis of Opera
The set of Fifty-Third Street should depict a clear view of 53rd Street, Manhattan, between 5th and 6th Avenues on a late Saturday afternoon in the autumn. The original stage design was made up of photographic images of the actual 53rd Street projected onto scrims, circa the years 1980-2008. From the audience view, the stage was seen as if looking down the street. On the right was the façade of St. Thomas Cathedral, with the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) beyond. On the left was the Tishman building with its subway entrance sign in clear view. Beyond this was the Donnell Public Library, and then the American Crafts Museum. Down the street in the distance could be seen the NBC Building. All scenes took place on the street – the “street” being the microcosm of the modern New York condition. While the projected images of NYC were of real places, it is important to note that the people and the events described within the opera are fictional and are not intended to represent any particular organization, but rather various facets of our society in general. The music is continuously active and tries to depict the hustle and bustle of urban life. In the opening chorus, we are met with a barrage of New Yorkers from every walk of life as they sing the praises of their great city.
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 toward the homeless persons present. The only named character in the opera is “Benny,” a homeless man who was recently forcibly released from a mental institution. His name has been symbolically taken from the Biblical, “Tribe of Benjamin,” the tribe rejected by all others (as read in the book of Judges, chapter 20).
A policeman is the first character we meet, as he walks his regular route. He is of Irish-American extraction, he is honest, and of another generation. He bemoans the decay he sees happening on the streets of NYC. In his wanderings, he meets a Food Vendor, and together they reminisce of “the good ol’ days.”
The Policeman then spots a Senegalese Street Vendor and challenges him on the legality of setting up shop on the street. The Policeman also demonstrates disdain for the street musicians playing nearby. A trio is formed as the vendors reminisce of their homelands and the Policeman continues to lament the changes on 53rd Street.
As a male choir is heard rehearsing in the church, Bum 1 appears and rummages in the trash for his supper. The Food Vendor and Policeman discuss their opinion of the homeless, and we get some insight into the character of Bum 1 as he interacts with other men passing him by on the street. Bum 1 is described in the score as “a raté, a restless cosmopolitan, a lost talent, possibly a victim himself, wearing a tattered letter jacket from Berkeley.”
As the street clears, the Museum Director and his Secretary appear to discuss their plans to improve business. Bum 1 returns near the end of their dreaming and they react with condescension. As they quickly retreat back into the museum, Benny makes his first entrance, pleased that he has just received a large turkey bone as a gift. Bum I tries to talk Benny into sharing with him, when a Reporter from a local television station appears, searching for a good story on the homeless of NYC. After listening to the reporter pitcher her idea, Bum I drunkenly regales Benny with the glories of street living. Benny does not understand all that Bum I is saying, but gives us some insight into his own background as he gently and sweetly sings of his own memories.
The Senegalese Street Vendor returns and attempts to interest the Street Musicians in his wares, but with no success. He is pleased to see Benny, and attempts to warn him of the Policeman’s former inquiry. Benny, Bum I, and the Senegalese Street Vendor launch into a trio discussing their place on the streets of New York.
Suddenly, the museum lets out and the street is filled again. Two French tourists, a mother and daughter, enjoy the sights and sounds of New York City, but are rather horrified and disgusted by the food vendors and the homeless on the streets. Bum I reacts violently to the haughtiness displayed by the French Mother and a quintet follows as the small crowd on the stage react to each other’s presence on 53rd Street.
Amidst all the commotion, A Reverend appears, wanting to clear the street for a wedding that is about to begin. All react to the demands of the Reverend, and the Policeman enters again to try to disperse the mounting riot. The crowd continues to attract more and more of the street’s regulars and all scream for their own rights to be on 53rd Street. The fighting is momentarily interrupted as the Bride is spotted. As the wedding begins, the Police Officer finally convinces the crowd to disperse.
After the street clears, Bum I and Benny sneak back to their warm place above the grates of the subway, in front of the church. Benny listens to the end of the wedding, and wonders aloud if he will ever one day be married. This leads Bum I to reflect upon his own life and his ensuing philosophy. His emotions begin to boil and he again beseeches Benny to share his turkey bone, promising to take only one bite. Benny tentatively agrees and becomes distraught when Bum I refuses to give it back. For the first time, Benny stands up to Bum I, leading to the climax of the opera where Bum I violently stabs Benny with a stiletto, leaving him dead on the street.
The murder scene is followed by the return of several characters who display various attitudes and reactions to the sight of Benny body 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 not to disturb Benny and not to send him away. Benny’s lifeless body is eventually removed by three street musicians, redressed symbolically as the “Three Fates,” during a balletic scene reminiscent of a “Noh” ceremony. For the original production, an image of “Christ Crucified over Manhattan” was projected high onto the set as Benny’s body was removed.
The opera concludes in a tutti based on the opening crowd scene. The characters sing the ecstatic lines of “New York, New York,” as they had earlier. Apathetic or unaware of Benny’s death, they continue living out their various desperate or comfortable situations, mostly unchanged. The orchestra has soured, however, and is at odds with their singing. In the final moment of the opera, Bum I can be seen sneering from the subway entrance, now symbolic of the entranceway to “Hell.” The music is cut off, uncadenced, with one final red strobe blast and a blackout. Nagel and Wolitz state 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.
Compositional Choices Employed
Fifty-Third Street addresses relevant social justice issues in a way that is both musically and dramatically compelling. The opera is through-composed, the continuously-moving music illustrating the hustle and bustle of city life. Recitative is not used in the traditional recitativo secco (dry recitative) or recitativo accompagnato (accompanied recitative) manner. Arioso is the tool that Nagel employs for dialogue between the characters and to move seamlessly between the arias and ensemble pieces.
The music is pitch-centric, utilizing the western, equal-tempered tuning system, and a standard western, 19th-century orchestra with the addition of a synthesizer playing acoustic instrument-type sounds. The form, key centers and key relationships are based entirely upon the characters and the unfolding of the libretto with virtually no traditional musical forms. Each character has an assigned key center, chosen carefully to represent the relationship between them. Benny and Bum I are a tritone apart, illustrating the conflict between their characters that leads to the murder in Scene 12. The Reverend, who represents organized religion, is set in the two key centers of D & Ab . His tritone is maximally distant from the street people’s tritone of B/F. The Reverend’s own two tritone-related keys humorously represent the Medieval “Diabolus in Musica.”
The remaining characters have key centers within semitones of either the homeless characters or the Reverend, representing a kind of class distinction. The socially lower class characters in Fifty-Third Street (Policeman, Street Cleaner, Senegalese Street Vendor, and Food Vendor) have key centers within a semitone of Bum 1 and Benny’s B/F axis. The middle class characters (News Reporter, French Tourists, Businessman, MOMA Director and his Secretary) have key centers within a semitone of the Reverend’s D/Ab axis (Table 2.2).
Traditional major and minor modes are not employed. Nagel uses Heptatonia Seconda modes to which he has assigned names by hybridizing the names of the two white key modes which contain the same tritones as the given Heptatonia Secunda mode. The tritones within the modes are used to shape the melodic lines within the opera amid occasional octatonic or whole-tone extensions of the modal scales. The vocal melodies follow the contours of the natural spoken text with comprehensibility a major emphasis. The result is constantly shifting meter, irregular rhythmic patterns and rapid tempo changes throughout. The melody line is almost always doubled by an instrument in the orchestra.
Arias are employed to give us insight into each one of the characters. Each character performs within his or her key center and several of the characters have motives representative of their presence onstage. Programmatic dissonance and quotations from other well-known works are engaged occasionally to add humor and irony to the characters’ text. It is important to note that all Ensembles onstage are deliberately used by Nagel to represent either a conflict of ideas between characters (polyphony), or to demonstrate the few times that characters are in agreement (homophony).
There are four places where Nagel uses an off-stage choir in traditional homophony. In each of these instances, the music is heard coming from the St. Thomas church, strategically and sometimes ironically placed within the context of the drama happening outside the edifice. The first of these situations is a madrigal setting of Psalm 8 by Salomone de Rossi, “What is man, that Thou art mindful of him?” This occurs just as we are introduced to Bum 1. The Psalm text floats from the church as Bum 1 questions whether or not God is attentive to the state of His creation. The second example is another madrigal setting by Solomone de Rossi, Psalm 128, translated “Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine, in the innermost parts of thy house.” This mixed chorus happens at the beginning of the Scene 12 murder scene during a wedding occurring inside the church. The music causes Benny to wonder about his own future possibilities for a wife and family.
The third semi-traditional chorus is a Dies Irae chant melody for tenor and bass heard in the background in Scene 13 as the Senegalese Street Vendor appears and finds Benny’s lifeless body. The open fifths provide a surreal sensation. Time seems to stop for a moment as the SSV takes on a dream-like motion before stumbling across Benny’s body.
The final example occurs during the Scene 17 interlude. The SATB chorus begins in unison to chant alternately in Hebrew and English, “Hear our voices. Renew our days, God, Our Lord, as of yore.” This takes place as Benny’s body is being ceremonially removed by the “Three Fates,” or Street Musicians. The music intensifies and the chorus separates into octaves, pleading for understanding from the audience that we are all necessary to creation and fulfillment of the world and its restoration.
Implementing the Message of Fifty-Third Street
The messages of the opera are varied and many. They can be found hidden within one of Benny’s simple lines or drifting throughout the background in an off-stage chorus. Nagel states that the primary challenge to audience members is to confront and judge the modern urban city condition and to leave the performance hall demanding that there be changes in their world.
Many of the premiere cast accepted an invitation to participate in a poverty simulation offered on the campus of Ball State University by EPIC and TEAMwork for Quality Living. TEAMwork for Quality Living is an organization that was founded in 1995 in Delaware County, Indiana, for the purpose of empowering people in poverty toward self-sufficiency, and creating better communities. EPIC is one of the programs run by TEAMwork, and seeks to draw people out of the isolation of poverty and into the fellowship of community by creating safe places and events for people of all social circumstances to meet and develop friendships.
The poverty simulation gave each participant an identity and a set of circumstances: some were disabled, some were unemployed, some were single mothers, but all lived in poverty. The goal of the simulation was to introduce people to the idea of how poverty affects lives. The simulation lasts an hour, with each 15-minute segment representing a week in the life of the individuals, who must struggle to get food, take care of their children, obtain a job, pay their bills, and keep a roof over their heads. The simulation included interactions with the police department, bankers, social services, mortgage collectors, utility companies and doctors.
The cast and crew of Fifty-Third Street learned that more than 37 million people were living in poverty within the United States at the time of the opera’s premiere in 2007. At that time, poverty rates were rising more rapidly in Indiana than in almost any other state. Approximately 88,000 people in the state of Indiana were homeless, and over 29,000 of those were children. Forty percent of children qualified for free or reduced lunches, and 2,255 people received food stamps every month. Current poverty facts may be obtained at http://www.worldhunger.org/hunger-in-america-2016-united-states-hunger-poverty-facts/ and http://www.stats.indiana.edu/topic/welfare.asp .
Those who participated in the poverty simulation were deeply impacted by their experience. One of the cast members told of leaving an opera rehearsal and subsequently reaching out to a homeless man seeking shelter in the parking garage behind the performance hall. “How can I ever just walk by again?” the student stated. My experiences as director of this production’s premiere largely influenced my decision to adopt through the foster care system in the state of Indiana.
The students from the Virginia Ball Center for Creative Inquiry were also involved in a poverty study at the time of Fifty-Third Street’s premier. They and the personnel from TEAMwork for Quality Living were instrumental in advertising for the opera’s premiere. In exchange, both organizations were granted reciprocal complimentary advertising in the program book and on-screen projections prior to the performances. The Virginia Ball Center also provided a display within the venue lobby and created a power-point presentation of poverty facts from Delaware County which played silently on the large screen above the stage following the final blackout. Ushers at the door offered audience members an opportunity to complete a card requesting more information about EPIC and its programs as they exited the venue.
It is recommended that future performances also seek to collaborate with local organizations concerned with homelessness and social justice issues. This will help to increase the direct relevance of the performance, community involvement and the advancement of the genre to people who may not otherwise attend opera.
Many composers throughout the centuries have used opera as a way to comment on the world in which they lived and to challenge the status quo: Mozart, Le nozze di Figaro; Verdi, Un ballo in maschera; Berg, Wozzek; Britten, Peter Grimes. Jody Nagel has continued this tradition in a way that is relevant to one of today’s most disheartening systemic issues, compelling us to consider how we can positively contribute to help those marginalized in our communities. Future directors will discover that Fifty-Third Street offers an invaluable tool for the musical development of students and professionals, for the growth of the American opera repertory and for impacting the American way of life.
For sound clips and photos of the premiere, please visit 53rdstreetopera.com
About our Contributor
Dr. Tammie Huntington has enjoyed a variety of opera/operetta performances including the roles of Lucy in Menotti’s The Telephone, Papagena in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Josephine in Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, and Suor Genovieffa in Puccini’s Suor Angelica. Huntington has also appeared as Guest Soprano Soloist in orchestral productions of Haydn’s Creation, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Bach’s Magnificat, Bach’s Cantata No. 51, Mozart’s Requiem, Vivaldi’s Gloria, Handel’s Messiah, and Schubert’s Mass in G Major, No. 2. Huntington has a Bachelor’s degree in Music Education and Applied Voice from Grace College, and a Master of Music degree in Voice Performance from Ball State University. She also received her Doctor of Arts degree, with performance emphases in voice, opera, and opera direction from Ball State University, where she produced and directed the world premiere of Fifty-Third Street, a new American opera by composer Jody Nagel. Huntington is a Professor of Music at Indiana Wesleyan University, where she teaches Applied Voice, Diction for Singers, and co-directs Opera Workshop and Opera Theatre.
 Ibid., 348.
 Jody Nagel, Fifty-Third Street, libretto by Seth Wolitz, Piano/Vocal Score (Daleville, IN: JOMAR Press, 1996), ii.