Performance Thursday, March 14, 2013 | 7 PM

A Streetcar Named Desire

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
“I depend on the kindness of strangers …” Renée Fleming originated the role of Blanche DuBois in a searing performance at the premiere of André Previn’s beautiful opera based on the Tennessee Williams classic. Now she returns to this signature role in its first complete New York performance. This semi-staged production features lighting, costumes, and an all-star cast, making it an extraordinary evening.

Please note that due to illness Jane Bunnell will not take part in this performance. Carnegie Hall is grateful to Victoria Livengood for agreeing to perform the role of Eunice on very short notice.

This concert is part of My Time, My Music.
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A Streetcar Named Desire


Transferring an Archetypal Play into Opera

Shortly before A Streetcar Named Desire's legendary opening night on Broadway in December 1947, Tennessee Williams published an essay titled "A Streetcar Named Success." In it he offers his wry take on achieving the American Dream by being "snatched out of virtual oblivion and thrust into sudden prominence" after his first breakthrough, The Glass Menagerie, premiered in Chicago in 1944. Concluding that "security is a kind of death," Williams reaffirms the artist's need to remain true to whatever "first made the experience of living something that must be translated into pigment or music or bodily movement or poetry or prose or anything that's dynamic and expressive."

Yet the playwright could have had little inkling of the quantum leap in success he would make with his new work. While preparing for Menagerie to transfer to New York, Williams sent a letter to Audrey Wood, his perceptive agent, in which he described the play he had started drafting: "I know this is very heavy stuff and am writing it with as much lyrical and comedy relief as possible while preserving the essentially tragic atmosphere." For several years, Williams had in fact been translating his experience of the world into the raw material he would use in Streetcar, including brief dramatic sketches and a short story about a free-spirited Bohemian called "In Memory of an Aristocrat."

Williams was well aware not just of the new play's incendiary potential but of its challenging dramaturgy. He wrote in the spring of 1947 to Elia Kazan, who would direct the triumphant stage production as well as the 1951 film version, to clarify that the characters in Streetcar are "activated more by misunderstanding than malice." Williams laid out the terms of the play's "tragic dilemma," pointing out that "it was not that one person was bad or good, one right or wrong, but that all judged falsely concerning each other, what seemed black to one and white to the other is actually graya perception that could occur only through the detached eye of art."

Streetcar shunted the domestic drama explored in The Glass Menagerie onto a radically new path, though Williams would propel his art to even further extremes with such experimental endeavors as Camino Real (1953). The widespread attention Streetcar attracted marked a watershed in America's postwar theater scene, just as the Cold War taking shape created new pressures toward social conformity. Earlier in 1947, Arthur Miller had won his own first success with the harrowing All My Sons (likewise directed by Kazan). At the same time, Eugene O'Neill's last play, A Moon for the Misbegotten, stirred up controversy during its regional trial run, in part on account of its sexual frankness; the New York premiere was delayed for a decade until 1957 (after the playwright's death).

The very elements that made Streetcar so shocking at first-including the ways it shattered taboos of addressing sexuality onstage-have of course long since become commonplace clichés in American culture. Yet the qualities through which Streetcar transcends its historical context were also apparent from the start: above all in Williams's signature fusion of lyricism with realism, poetry with psychological perception. Thanks especially to their film incarnations (as rendered by Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando), Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski have entered the American psyche as postwar archetypes for a fundamental dichotomy. Williams once described his affinity for creating characters who, like Blanche, "live in glorious expectations of the past." Stanley, by contrast, gets by with unsentimental, impatient, aggressive realism. And such archetypes possess operatic potential as well. Franco Zeffirelli, who launched his career by designing the set for the first Italian production of Streetcar (directed by Luchino Visconti), later emphasized this dimension of the play, noting that it "cried out to be made into an opera."

But what kind of opera? For Zeffirelli, what immediately sprang to mind was the model of Puccinian verismo: "a perfect vehicle for a lady. Butterfly is nothing compared to [Streetcar]." And when the first full-scale operatic treatment was about to be unveiled at San Francisco Opera in September 199815 years after the playwright's deathit became clear that musico-dramatic expectations mirrored what each beholder saw in Streetcar: Instead of verismo, some anticipated mad scenes of pyrotechnical bel canto display and others a jazz-fueled portrayal of Southern Gothic neurosis.

Instead of tailoring a one-of-a-kind theatrical classic to already-familiar operatic formulas, André Previn brought an unusual combination to the project: Streetcar the opera exudes the excitement and ambition natural for a first foray in the genre, but these are accompanied by the confidence accrued over a long, extraordinarily versatile career. Like Leonard Bernstein, Previn has in fact juggled multiple careers in music, with varying emphases at different stages of his life. Space permits only the briefest of references to his prolific accomplishments as a film composer (starting at the age of 16), his identity as a jazz pianist, scores for the stage such as his innovative collaboration with Tom Stoppard (Every Good Boy Deserves Favour), and his roles as a conductor and composer in the classical field.

"He is a true polymath as an artistmore than just about anyone currently with us," observes Patrick Summers, artistic and music director of Houston Grand Opera, who has worked closely with Previn. "André lives and breathes music, and he brings his rich amalgam of influences to this work." In a sense, he suggests, this store of experience enhances the opera's focus on Blanche as the center and on the use of music to evoke reflection and memory. Summers shared duties conducting Streetcar's San Francisco premiere and, in 2009, led the world premiere of Previn's second opera, Brief Encounter, based on Noël Coward's elegiac portrait of a love just beyond reach. In both operas Previn has taken up the challenge of bringing a fresh musical perspective to works that seemed already to have attained their definitive form as plays or films.

Yet in the case of a masterpiece like Streetcar, is it really possible to escape a kind of redundancy? The original script not only laces leitmotif-like webs of imagery into William's verbal lyricism, but even specifies the ongoing presence of incidental music (from the blues that intermittently drift in from the barroom around the corner from the Kowalskis' apartment to the tune of "Paper Moon" which Blanche "blithely" sings, to Stanley's intense annoyance).

"The question for any opera is: How does music as a story-telling device better a work or at least alter it to a different medium? I think it's complicated with Streetcar," Summers observes, pointing to the play's intricate psychological dimension and the distinct focus represented by each of the four principal characters. "You get a sense of that [intricacy] from one of Tennessee Williams's own analyses of the play later in his life. He suggested all four characters were aspects of the same person: Mitch was the way his mother saw him, Stella was how he saw himself, Stanley was the man he wanted to find, and Blanche was the way the world saw him." Brando's generation-defining performance in Kazan's film, meanwhile, shifted the public's focus to a Stanley-centric perspective (which also happens to be embodied in Thomas Hart Benton's famous, brazenly sexualized painting of the poker scene). But Streetcar the opera, Summers emphasizes, "is utterly centered on Blanche. In an opera you can have propulsive music that forwards the actionand there are examples of that, as in the interlude that accompanies the rape scenebut the real highlights in Previn's musical treatment are the moments of reflection, of memory."

The uncut, 11-scene play in itself is quite long and had to be scaled back significantly. Librettist Philip Littell prepared the textabout two-fifths the length of Williams's scriptbefore Previn began composing. The result is comparable to the approach Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears took to Shakespeare to craft their libretto for A Midsummer Night's Dream. Littell similarly reproduces the essence of Williams's original language, simplifying and shortening the more extended verbal arias. Some of the cuts are neatly surgical, such as the conflation of Williams's two scenes into one for the catastrophic birthday dinner. Opera requires more "space" to be given over to the musical expression. This is especially evident in the four extended lyrical solos for Blanche: Tellingly, these are more prominent in the final act, just as she is tragically forced to fixate on the past and give up hope of a new life through Mitch's love.

At the same time, the libretto actually incorporates some new lines for Mitch, amplifying our understanding of Blanche's predicament by clarifying the stakes from Mitch's point of view. It's interesting to note as well that the libretto restores the references to Blanche's gay husband and to kissing the newspaper collector "on the mouth." Both were excised from the 1951 film, since they would have violated the Hollywood Production Code still in place at the timeand also to preempt criticism from the National Legion of Decency.

Previn's musical characterization not only centers on Blanche but augments the impression of her difference from the others. Stella's wordless humming at the end of the first act (when she returns to her husband's arms) conveys a deep sexual contentment and has a kind of distorted, chillingly lonely echo in Blanche's own whistle-in-the-dark melody to the phrase "whoever you are," which ends the opera. Previn wrote the role specifically for Renée Fleming's voice and temperamentfollowing one of his chief musical models, Britten, who likewise composed for particular performersand takes advantage of her emotionally illuminating  way of coloring a line. It's no coincidence that Stanley has no arias of his own (not unlike Don Giovanni, whose characterization is limited to three brief solos but who looms over his eponymous opera). Even such details as the scene where she attempts to seduce the newspaper collector sharpen our sense of Blanche's fragility. While the opposition between desire and death frames the whole of Streetcar, here we witness Blanche's sensitivity to the loss of innocence as well.

Previn's mastery of his orchestral resources further layers the depiction of Blanche's inner world. The New Orleans setting, for example, functions as a character in its own right yet-most obviously in the recurring, quasi-Expressionist chords that open the opera-vividly conjures the disturbed frame of mind in which Blanche already enters the action. They seem to indicate "the weight of her obsession," notes Summers, who goes on to point out Previn's detailed use of instrumental colors throughout the score: the prominence of solo clarinet and trumpet lines, or the startling depth of the contrabassoon in the encounter with the newspaper collectora scene he calls the epitome of Previn's remarkable match of music and theatricality.

In another passage from his letter to Kazan glossing his take on the play's meaning, Tennessee Williams wrote, "Nobody sees anybody truly, but all through the flaws of their own ego. That is the way we all see each other in life … how cloudy the glass must become through which we look at each other." Streetcar the opera, like the play, invites us to peer beyond the clouded glass.

Thomas May


This article was commissioned by Lyric Opera of Chicago and is used by permission.


Perspectives: Renée Fleming

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