‘A Streetcar Named Desire’: André Previn’s opera delivers the power

Jim Lowe

Two American icons shared history when André Previn set Tennessee Williams’ 1947 masterpiece, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” to music as an opera in 1998.

“The dramatic structure is just so rock solid. From the very beginning, it has you on the edge of your seat,” said Douglas Anderson, who is stage directing the Opera Company of Middlebury production.

“Previn decided to underscore (the play), to create this emotional context, not fight it, and, in that regard, I think it’s a unique work of art — and I think Previn did a brilliant job,” he said.

“Our rehearsal pianist, Mary Jane Austin, said it beautifully,” added Michael Sakir, who is conducting. “The whole score is beauty in the midst of brutality.”

Opera Company of Middlebury opens its 15th season with “A Streetcar Named Desire,” with four performances beginning June 1-9 at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater. The production will be fully staged with orchestra and sung in English with English supertitles.

Williams’ 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama centers on Blanche DuBois, a faded Southern belle forced by poverty to move into her sister Stella’s New Orleans apartment. Blanche and Stella’s husband, Stanley Kowalski, conflict from the beginning and the tension simmers throughout. And even the mild-mannered Mitch, who falls for Blanche, can’t stop the final eruption.

Previn’s opera is completely faithful to the original play.

“In fact, he had no choice,” Anderson, the regional professional opera company’s artistic director, said in an interview between rehearsals. “The Williams estate wouldn’t let him change a single word. The result is an opera that has all of the hallmarks of a great play: amazing language, high drama, and a great story.”

Previn’s music underscores the action and the characters, and colors the environment.

“To his credit, Previn did not write pastiche,” Anderson said. “What he did was to create this sonic palette that has a saxophone in it; it has a wailing trumpet, but it’s still his own language. So it’s sort of (a) bed of blues-tinged emotion.”

“There are moments of such iconic beauty in what is, in the majority, a brutal opera,” Sakir said. “There’s a lot of thorny, angular disjunct music that so reflects these angular disjunct characters. There is a very complex beauty to Blanche, and to all of the characters, but especially Blanche.

“Blanche and Stella have such lyrical music, while Stanley is so harsh — but he has tender moments,” the conductor said. “He genuinely loves Stella, and you hear that in the music.”

For soprano Meredith Lustig, who sings Blanche, which she describes as “vocally a beast,” Previn’s music illuminates her character.

“If she is telling a lie, or starts to venture into something that triggers her past traumas, the tonality becomes quirky and frenetic,” she said. “When you see her more comfortable and in her element, you get this very romantic, flirtatious kind of tease, jazz-like quality. It’s just so wonderful.”

Conversely, Mitch’s music is “super-square.”

“Because Mitch is a square guy,” explained tenor Jamie Flora, who sings the role. “He’s the ‘regular-est’ character. I’m still coming to terms (with) why he goes to sexually assault (Blanche). It’s outside of everything else he does. But he does get beautiful melodies.”

There are, in fact, traditional arias.

“Blanche gets three of them, the famous one, ‘I Want Magic,’” Anderson said. “Stella gets a lovely aria, as does Mitch. Oddly enough, Stanley didn’t get one.”

As to staging, Opera Company of Middlebury is breaking its tradition of reconstructing traditional operas in novel ways.

“There’s none of that stuff here,” Anderson said. “It’s a very realistic, naturalistic drama. The set doesn’t do wild things. We’ve decided to play it right down the middle — for a change.”

At 29, this orchestra will be the company’s largest to date. It was originally scored for 80, and there is an approved reduction for 37. But 37 was still much too large for the 240-seat theater, so Sakir got Previn’s permission to further reduce it to 29.

“Still, that would be too big for our pit,” Anderson said. “We put it upstage with this sort-of transparent set. That made us pull the whole set forward into the house. It is so intimate, and for this material is so appropriate.”

Still, the biggest challenge was to find a cast that could both act and sing.

“We had to cast a group of people who can do this as a play, without the music,” Anderson said. “There aren’t a whole lot of opera singers who can pull that off. Two of our leading singers, Meredith Lustig and soprano Cree Carrico (Stella) have done a lot of musical theater, which helped a lot.”

Initially, Anderson couldn’t find a suitable Stanley.

“Stanley has to have a certain sexual magnetism or the piece makes no sense whatsoever,” he said.

Eventually, a search led to baritone Gregory Gerbrandt, who had already sung the role at Opera Santa Barbara and Opera Idaho.

“He’s sensational,” Anderson said. “I think, because of the level of the challenge, they’ve all come note-perfect and have thought a lot about it.”

“We’re trusting what Williams wrote,” Anderson said, summing up the production’s approach. “We’re trusting what Previn wrote.”

Opera Company of Middlebury

The Opera Company of Middlebury presents André Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire, fully staged with orchestra, June 1-9 at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. June 1, 7 and 9, and 2 p.m. June 3. Tickets are $55-$80; call 802-382-9222, or go online to www.townhalltheater.org. For information, visit ocmvermont.org.