Bill T. Jones Takes on Weill Revival the Boston Lyric Opera Enlists Avant-Garde Director for a Little-Known Kurt Weill Musical. MUSIC: INTERVIEW

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BILL T. JONES has his work cut out for him. And he knows it. As an innovative and energetic choreographer and director, his name heads the list of top avant-garde artists working in the United States. Mr. Jones has signed on to a formidable project: directing a 1949 musical tragedy based on Alan Paton's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Cry, the Beloved Country," for the Boston Lyric Opera. The production opens Jan. 17.

Interviewed at the start of rehearsals for "Lost in the Stars the name composer Kurt Weill gave to his adaptation of the Paton novel - Jones says the challenges kept him awake at night. But if anyone could spark excitement into this "odd but beguiling creation," as he calls the musical, he would be the person.

There's no getting around the irony underlying this musical: "Lost in the Stars" is a dramatization by a European composer (Weill) of a novel by a white South African (Paton) about the experience of a fictional black African preacher (Stephen Kumalo). And now, the entire weight of Paton's story rests with Jones, an African-American director, whose staging will be scrutinized for political messages and musical deviations.

Another catch is that the music, at least on one of the recordings, sounds like a cross between "Porgy and Bess" and Weill's better-known "The Threepenny Opera." It doesn't sound the slightest bit like what we now expect of African music. The reason, of course, is that Weill took his inspiration from what he knew best:European cabaret songs and American folk tunes.

"It doesn't sound like South Africa. It sounds like Weill. And I wrestled with that a great deal," Jones says with a wide smile. (The seriousness of the conversation was frequently offset by his deep and good-natured laughs.) m looking at it as a good piece of musical theater, written by a European from a certain class," he says.

But what about his own sensibilities in regard to Paton's book, and Weill's adaptation? How does he reconcile his own view of the world with theirs?

"I'm not a person of the '50s. What it means to be black, progressive, and political in the '90s is to look back on the '50s and see what's not there. Who's telling the history in Alan Paton's book and in this play? Have I grown enough as an artist that I can go back into someone else's world and keep myself in some way detached, or is that dangerous?"

What concerns Jones is that many people of color feel themselves shut out from the very theatrical and musical traditions he's been enlisted to promote.

"In Minneapolis a young black girl asked me, 'Why do they always tell us about Romeo and Juliet, and Shakespeare? Why don't you do something more hip?' She was saying something important. Opera for me is a battleground where cultures are in collision. Opera traditionally doesn't belong to a lot of people. It still has its pedigree written all over it.

"We need about another 50 to 60 years of listening and getting good composers who take seriously what those Europeans said about opera coming from the vernacular. What composer out there right now is going to write the tunes that these kids will hear in a way that an Italian would have recognized in 1700 his culture in those beautiful notes?"

To encourage a connection between school children and "Lost in the Stars," the Boston Lyric Opera joined up with an educational organization that brings special events into classrooms via live two-way television. …