About the Opera

Mention “A Streetcar Named Desire” and the image that comes to mind for many is a young Marlon Brando, standing shirtless in the street, braying “Stella! Stella!” It’s a movie scene for the ages that catapulted Brando’s career, and conveyed the idea that the story revolves around Stanley Kowalski, Stella’s hot headed husband.

Not so. In the mind of André Previn, who composed the opera based on the Tennessee Williams play, the story’s pivotal character is Stella’s sister, Blanche DuBois, the emotionally scarred woman who arrives in New Orleans seeking refuge in her sister’s home, only to come face to face with an abusive brother-inlaw. Blanche sings the first line in Act I and the last line in the finale. She’s a constant presence onstage, even when hidden behind the bathroom door where she spends hours soaking in the tub. Fragile and a bit of a lush as a house guest, she’s ultimately a sympathetic character who did her best to preserve the family estate, even while falling prey to illicit affairs. Her lovely Act III aria, “I Can Smell The Sea Air,” is a genuine mad scene. Not bloody, like the famous one in “Lucia di Lammermoor,” but an unmistakeable musical portrait of a lonely woman, captive to a fantasy life, coming quietly unglued.

“I can only write for someone specific. I don’t like writing into the void,” Previn said about his composing methods. “I have to know who it’s for.” When it came to “A Streetcar Named Desire,” his first opera, Previn had one specific thought for the role of Blanche: soprano Renée Fleming. Offered the part, Fleming immediately said “yes,” explaining that she admired Previn’s music enough to accept the role even before the score was written. Fleming sang the debut run at San Francisco Opera on September 19, 1998 and reprised the role in semi-staged versions at Los Angeles Opera, Lyric Opera in Chicago, at Carnegie Hall in New York, and in London. The work was well received and has played in opera houses world wide.

“An opera but with the music missing,” was how Previn described the play when he discovered it. “I don’t know why more of (Tennessee Williams’) plays haven’t been turned into operas. They’re all excellent — every single one of them.”

Previn confessed to being fussy in writing vocal music. “I’m probably very annoying to singers because I keep insisting, ‘What was that? What was the word?’ I want to be able to hear the words.” In composing “Streetcar,” he said he sought clarity by avoiding stretched out syllables and keeping the rhythms close to normal speech patterns.

The New York Times critic Bernard Holland noted this point. “Mr. Previn has a fine ear for voices. He knows how to flatter and coax it and send it gracefully from one musical episode to the next ... one had the impression that Mr. Previn had been writing for the musical theater all his life.”

An opera set in the French Quarter of New Orleans written by a composer who made his mark years earlier as a jazz pianist makes searching for jazz influences in the score inevitable. Previn’s response: “That would be a little too obvious, don’t you think?” He said he didn’t set out to write a specifically jazz-derived score but didn’t wholly turn his back on it, either.

When it comes to opera, Previn has a down-to-earth view of what he wants. “The last act of Bohème, or the beginning of Turandot, are irreplaceable for me. And the more they go for the throat in the interpretation, the better it is. I love it.” So how does “A Streetcar Named Desire” end? In an anguished finale, Blanche leaves her sister’s house, a place she had hoped would provide safe haven from her inglorious past, and walks toward the uncertain future of a room in an asylum. She departs with her head held high, in the company of an anonymous doctor in whom she invests kindness.

For Blanche, it’s a problematic new chapter in a life already full of real and manufactured woes. For the audience, however, it’s a shattering conclusion that Previn must have relished because it definitely goes for the throat.

- Performance notes by Eugene Carlson