The Los Angeles Opera production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles starting Sunday offers the unique opportunity of experiencing the Tennessee Williams work — well-known on stage and screen — done musically. Composed by Andre Previn with a libretto by Philip Littell and approved by Williams' estate, the opera relates the story of a fading Southern belle and her tenuous relationship with her sister and brother-in-law.
Soprano Renee Fleming, who originated the role of former belle Blanche DuBois at the San Francisco Opera in 1998, is bringing her vocal prowess to the L.A. Opera production. The cast is rounded out by bass-baritone Ryan McKinny as Stanley Kowalski, soprano Stacey Tappan as Stella and tenor Anthony Dean Griffey as Mitch. The piece will be conducted by Evan Rogister and directed by Brad Dalton.
Although the storyline has been streamlined, all of the major events and most of the language remain intact, Dalton said. The most exciting change will be in the presentation, which differs from typical opera.
“There are very few characters in the scenes. On a normal opera stage they can be very far from the audience, so the way we've solved that problem is we created an intensely theatrical staging that is on a stage all the way over the orchestra pit,” Dalton said. “If you're in the front row, you could get up and touch the actors.”
The orchestra has been relocated upstage, where the audience can see the musicians playing in a dimly lit space throughout the show.
The director explained that instead of scenery and the usual “Streetcar” set of two rooms, the stage is empty, with furnishings placed as needed and lighting to indicate changes in the scenes and action. There is also a chorus of seven men, adding a bit of New Orleans grit to the production.
“It's the perfect piece for people who have never seen an opera,” Dalton said. “You are watching characters who are speaking in English and who are sweating in New Orleans, drinking whiskey and battling each other with their high emotions.”
“It's kind of like ice skating or ballet in that there's this huge element of fit,” Fleming said. “You want to make sure that it works for your particular bone structure, your range, that it fits your strengths — so this piece is that. It's the one thing that I have premiered and also performed again; everything else was only done once.”
The role still presents challenges for Fleming.
“The pacing is demanding vocally. It's very intense, so I have to make sure that I have the stamina to get to the end. Dramatically, you're always trying to find more depth,” Fleming said.
It is important to learn the role inside and out so that the text becomes second nature, Fleming added. This leaves her free to focus on her voice and allows Fleming to express the nuances that give Blanche dimension and emotion.
“Speaking only gives you so much, whereas singing gives you a two-and-a-half-octave range to express the same thing. I think it's more dramatic,” Fleming said.
McKinny faces the same task in his role as Stanley in “Streetcar.”
“One of the most challenging things is a lot of choices are already made for you. In any opera, you can't decide how fast something is going to happen, the rhythm is already there and the melody of your line dictates how you would say something,” McKinny said.
His answer is to look for the opportunities he does have, such as playing against the music physically. For example, at a very dynamic point in the score McKinny may counter by standing perfectly still.
The Houston singer notes that Stanley is a bigger character than he seems at first glance.
“It would be easier for everybody — the audience included — if Stanley was just a bad guy ... but because Williams is such a great writer and the play is one of the greatest plays ever, he's not just a bad guy, he has real love for Stella,” McKinny said. “I understand him; even in a certain set of circumstances most humans could do a lot of really bad things.”
McKinny encourages everyone who likes Williams' classic tale to attend the L.A. Opera production, even if he or she isn't sure about opera or doesn't care for modern opera.
“Just the fact that we have Renee Fleming — if there are any stars in opera left, she is the one,” McKinny said. “This piece is fantastic. Especially if you know the play or the movie, seeing this other version of it with this amazing music — this is going to be a fantastic show. I think everyone will love it.”