WHERE’S THE SWEAT?
February 21, 2013 § Leave a comment
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, the #opera?
Does Tennessee Williams’ stage play, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, work, at its barest, down to the simplest of storyline nudity, essentially stripped of its dramatic setting, New Orleans, where heat and desire and sweat and discomfort and jazz are all part of the scene?
Can a Chekhovian styled stage set, perhaps even a Chekhovian operatic take on America’s deep South, work?
Virginia Opera is taking the risk that it can and does.
Of Chekhov’s stories, Virginia Woolf (THE COMMON READER, 1925) notes:
“But is it the end, we ask? We have rather the feeling that we have overrun our signals; or it is as if a tune had stopped short without the expected chords to close it. These stories are inconclusive, we say, and (we then) proceed to frame a criticism based upon the assumption that stories ought to conclude in a way that we recognise. In so doing we raise the question of our own fitness as readers. Where the tune is familiar and the end emphatic—lovers united, villains discomfited, intrigues exposed…we can scarcely go wrong, but where the tune is unfamiliar and the end a note of interrogation or merely the information that they went on talking, as it is in Tchekov, we need a very daring and alert sense of literature to make us hear the tune, and in particular those last notes which complete the harmony.”
For me, Willams’ play works, period. Bare bones, it’s about three people. A mentally and emotionally unstable woman moves in with her newly wed sister. The woman and her brother-in-law quickly grow to hate each other- she degrades him at every turn, he sabotages her last chance at happiness with a suitor by digging up proof of her tawdry recent past- and, to stamp “approval” on that recent sexually tawdry past, he rapes her. Her mental state shatters, she tells her sister about the rape. The sister cannot afford to believe it and instead has her removed to an asylum. Where, it is clear, she now belongs. Where she will, again, have to “rely upon the kindness of strangers.”
In any setting, that line, Blanche’s last, whether sung, screamed or whispered, works.
In VIRGINIA OPERA’S production of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, playing at the Harrison Opera House, Norfolk, VA through Sunday, February 24th, that last line, sung by Blanche, leaves us devastated as the curtain falls.
But does the rest of the play, as opera, work?
I found it hard to watch the opera without recalling two things. First, the Brando movie; and second, the play’s setting, New Orleans.
Because the stage set is deliberately sparse, the actors directed to let the music drive the emotion (here, I can’t help but recall the angst in a Vivene Leigh closeup, her lips pursed, ready to tear into Brando’s Stanley with sugar sweet insanity), and the music itself unfamiliar, which requires listening (yes, I know that’s dumb), A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE as opera, composed in 1995 by Andre Previn with libretto by Philip Littell and directed for Virginia Opera by Sam Helfrich with Ari Pelto conducting, well, it’s a little hard to get your head around.
I was, however, privileged to be seated beside (and talk about interactive media opportunities at a cultural event) THE ARTISTIC ADVISOR for the #VirginiaOpera, Robin Thompson. He held out a hand and flat out introduced himself.
Also an author and producer, Thompson has been instrumental in the development and growth of both the New York City Opera at Lincoln Center and the LA Opera at the Music Center of Los Angeles. He now is charged with, among other things, the herculean task of staging operatic productions which ignite interest in and inspire ticket sales from the folks in Virginia who don’t support opera.
Why? Well, aside from the financial answer, there’s the fact that opera is an art form worthy of support. So he thinks, as do I, and so it can easily and passionately be argued.
So, Thompson is trying out Previn’s STREETCAR. Brave. He’s hedging the bet that this opera, based on one of the best American stories ever staged, will interest the Americans out there who don’t routinely don black tie, dine out, valet park and then sit still for a three or four hour gig.
I think he has done a tremendous and risky thing here. I hope multitudes attend and consider it as deeply as I have done. And I ain’t no professional, just an audience member.
There are supremely beautiful moments in Previn’s STREETCAR. The love between Stella and Stanley is clear. Their duets (forgive my ignorance of terminology) and stage-directed sensuality work well. Track. I get it. I adored Soprano Julia Ebner’s Stella. So fresh, so clear. She SOUNDS like a woman in love.
David Adam Moore, as Stanley, bravely strips to briefs in the glaring light that Blanche despises, right before he rapes her, and cudos to David both for his Baritone voice and for deftly maintaining the poise an operatic voice must surely require while wearing naught but skivvies. The ladies wear slips a lot, but it’s not the same.
Blanche. Sung by Soprano Kelly Cae Hogan. A difficult role. For most of us, she’s not just being Blanche but also Viviene Leigh. And, even setting aside that prejudice for a moment, for Blanche’s part to work operatically she has to be convincingly southern, egomaniacal, and borderline nuts. All the while pulling off that poise the operatic voice must maintain while the body wears whatever the costume designer dreams up.
Kelly’s voice is full and satisfying, Blanche has arias and duets that allow it to soar.
And the pathos of Blanche’s demise in Act III, her exit, led off stage in the hands of strangers, the rest of the cast and we, the audience, left on stage wondering, “What did we do to our sister?” Okay, that works.
But where is the sweat?
I kept thinking about PORGY AND BESS. I was weaned on Porgy and Bess’s soulful, refined, lyrical, very American operatic sounds. My otherwise uptight mother adored that opera. It was, for her, the doorway through which a wary, conventional musician of the fifties could step into darker, deeper, yet still operatic places. She felt safe enjoying something brand new to her ear because it presented itself as an old friend, operatically, yet brought along rhythms, sounds, uses of melodic line that were distinctly its own.
I did not, while sitting beside him, know that Robin Thompson wrote a book, THE GERSHWINS’ PORGY AND BESS: THE 75TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION. Gulp.
Thankfully, I did not ask him about Porgy and Bess, fearing a show of my ignorance. Maybe Porgy and Bess really isn’t an opera. ?? Instead, I watched, listened, longed for STREETCAR to break out just a little more, just a tiny bit further, let ‘er rip at least once or twice into full tilt orchestration that tasted like real New Orleans Jazz. Break a sweat. Don’t allude to it. This play is set there, by god.
Sweat and discomfort and desire and death by heat and hate are what Tennessee William’s entire story drives on. If the play were a streetcar, its tracks would be slippery and hot.
Perhaps slippery and hot are too muddled and tawdry for the highs and lows and grandiosity that make up the fine art of opera. Perhaps, in opera, we must ultimately be inspired, not dragged down into the New Orleans dirt with the likes of a Stanley Kowalski, left sitting on a sofa in a slum.
Perhaps the opera, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, attempts to take the story beyond its setting. Perhaps it succeeds and I’m just one audience member hampered by my memories of Brando and Leigh’s version.
Perhaps to interest a wider audience in opera, we should not force it to take on new forms but educate about the art as it is. Avoid the trap of “Brando and Leigh” versions.
Back to Virginia Woolf’s question: Did the tune stop short without “the expected chords to close it?” Which chords did we expect to hear? The guttural ones of America’s deep southern insanity and New Orleans post war jazz, or the powerful, Wagnerian ones of tympani as an opera drums to its close and the audience breaks into applause?
Go see the production. Dress up and treat yourself. Much to wonder over, I promise.
And then, as if in answer to my questions, I learn that at least two more contemporary movies have been made into opera, DEAD MAN WALKING (2000) and DOUBT (just premiered at Minnesota Opera.) Go figure. Creativity never ends. Thank goodness for that.