Libretto by Philip Littell
Based on the play by Tennessee Williams
“Who wants real? I know I don’t want it. I want magic!”
Blanche DuBois—the fading southern belle who retreats into fantasy to escape from the brutal reality in which she’s forced to live. She’s a wounded, haughty, vulnerable, delusional misfit—a woman who won’t face the sensual side of herself and yet always succumbs to it. And when she moves in with her sister Stella and her sexually ruthless husband Stanley—worlds explode.
Blanche is one of the great parts for any actress, immortalized in the famous Tennessee Williams play, later on film, and now in opera. Experience the magnificent Renée Fleming in the role that was composed especially for her by André Previn, one of America’s iconic musicians.
This production will be like no other ever seen at Lyric! Costumes, props, and evocative lighting create the atmosphere, with the action taking place in front of the full orchestra—which will be onstage!
You want magic? Here it is.
Special Lyric Opera presentation generously made possible by The Hurvis Charitable Foundation and Kirkland & Ellis LLP, with additional funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.
“One ingredient above all contributed to Streetcar’s success and that was Renée Fleming…her lustrous voice, glamorous looks, and generous acting brought the character to life as an operatic heroine…a worthy successor to the Blanche immortalized on film by Vivien Leigh.” Associated Press
Susanna Phillips’s Lucia last fall brought thunderous ovations. “With her beautiful gleaming voice” (Chicago Classical Review) and native southern charm, she’ll be a captivating Stella, the understanding sister and lustful wife.
Teddy Tahu Rhodes
As the character that Marlon Brando made famous, “Teddy Tahu Rhodes has the ideal physique for Stanley…when he adds a guttural growl to the sweet resonance of his baritone, we understand how dangerous this character can be.” Sydney Morning Herald
Harold "Mitch" Mitchell
Anthony Dean Griffey
As Mitch, Blanche’s would-be suitor, Anthony Dean Griffey “was both moving and disturbing.” Concertonet.com
Susanna Phillips† †
Teddy Tahu Rhodes*
Harold "Mitch" Mitchell
Anthony Dean Griffey
† current member, Ryan Opera Center
† † alumnus/ alumna, Ryan Opera Center
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE – STORY OF THE OPERA
PLACE: New Orleans
Blanche DuBois has suffered the loss of both her ancestral home and her job when she arrives in New Orleans to visit her sister, Stella, who has married Stanley Kowalski, an ex-GI trucker.
A few days later
Stanley, infuriated by Blanche's artificial airs, her suggestive behavior, and what he regards as her loss of his wife's birthright, is determined to expose the lies about her past- which is more tragic and sordid than he is able to imagine.
During a poker game Blanche meets Harold Mitchell (Mitch), a workmate of Stanley's, very much tied to his mother's apron strings. Blanche sets her sights on him. Stanley, drunk, breaks up the evening and strikes Stella, whom he regards as siding against him with Blanche. After this violence, and against Blanche's advice, Stella returns to Stanley's bed. The next morning Stanley overhears Blanche entreating her sister to leave him.
Some weeks later
Stanley tells Stella that he has a friend who is making inquiries about Blanche in her hometown of Laurel. When he and his now-pregnant wife go out for the evening, Blanche makes a sad and half-hearted attempt to seduce a young paper boy. She later goes out with Mitch on a date.
Mitch unburdens his heart to Blanche who, in turn, tells him of her brief marriage to a young homosexual and how she blames herself for his suicide.
Some weeks later, Blanche's birthday
Mitch is late for the party. Stanley, who feels that his home and marriage are both threatened by Blanche, breaks up the celebration when he reveals that his friend has discovered Blanche's unsavory reputation in Laurel for seducing young men, and the fact that she had been told to leave town. He hands Blanche a one-way ticket back home and tells her that Mitch now knows everything and will not be corning around again. Thus begins the fragmentation of Blanche's mind.
Later that night
Stella has been taken to a hospital for a premature delivery. Mitch, drunk, invades the apartment and bitterly reproaches Blanche: Just as her desperate hopes lie with him, his lay with her. They have both lost their emotional refuge. His denunciation of her as someone too unclean to enter his mother's house and the appearance of a Mexican woman selling flowers for the dead are the triggers that start to unhinge Blanche's mind.
This fragmentation is completed when Stanley, as a last act of cruel retribution, rapes Blanche.
Some days later
Blanche prepares to leave for a visit to a fictitious old admirer. In fact Stella, unable to believe in Blanche's accusations against Stanley, is packing Blanche's clothes for her to take to the asylum when the doctor arrives. Now she depends - in a new, not promiscuous way- on "the kindness of strangers."
This synopsis by the late Colin Graham appeared in the program of the world-premiere production and is used by permission of San Francisco Opera.
André Previn and Renée Fleming in Their Own Words
A Streetcar Named Desire
by Jack Zimmerman
While singers and directors often share their thoughts with us in these pages, it is rare that a composer talks to Lyric Opera News about an opera of his creation. André Previn composed A Streetcar Named Desire in 1997 with Renée Fleming creating the role of Blanche DuBois. In May, Previn and Fleming spoke to the magazine about composing and performing the opera that is based on the famed Tennessee Williams play.
You came late to composing operas. Why was that?
Because nobody asked me to write one! I’ll tell you very frankly, I had a couple of ideas given to me by the intendants [general directors] of various opera companies, but they never interested me. One guy who runs a very good opera house in France offered me a commission and sent me the libretto. I read it and then I called him up and told him, “This thing is going to come out sounding unmusical and ridiculous.” I can’t write a two- or three-hour opera where everybody onstage is in a toga. I don’t know how people in togas think or how they feel. So then I had a call from San Francisco a couple of months afterwards and Lotﬁ Mansouri, who was the general director there, asked if I’d be interested in A Streetcar Named Desire. “That’s something I really want!” I told him. The play, in its own way, is already an opera – just without the singing.
How do you start writing an opera?
I just start. The world’s worst feeling is to look at a blank page, but once you get a couple of pages done, things start to go. I knew I wasn’t going to have a real overture, and I wanted to have something that would set the scene. I realized Blanche would need a couple of honest-to-God arias, but I didn’t write those ﬁrst – that’s always a bad idea. I’m rather primitive. I just go from the beginning and keep going.
Do you write at the piano?
No, I check at the piano. In other words, I write and then every once in awhile, if there’s something I doubt, I’ll play a little bit at the piano. But I don’t write at the piano.
What was the most pleasurable part of writing for Renée Fleming’s voice?
Just imagining how it would sound! I know her voice very well. I’ve done not only Streetcar with her, but also quite a lot of songs – song cycles and things, so I know what she likes and where she’s most comfortable. She can really sing absolutely anywhere. I remember one of the other people who sang Blanche. I went backstage after a rehearsal and I said, “Listen, this is just a question, but you know that B-ﬂat up on top of that one aria – can you sing that pianissimo?” And she said, “No!” I thought that was extremely smart of her, and very sweet. She said, “If you want a pianissimo high B-ﬂat, then go talk to Renée. I can’t do that.”
What was the most challenging scene to write?
I think the ending, from the rape on out. That was very hard. Once I got the idea that she should disappear upstage with just one trumpet playing, then I was okay, but I didn’t have that thought right away.
Do you set aside time every day to compose – to sit down and write something?
That’s exactly the way to put it – write something. I don’t pretend that it’s going to be great. I don’t pretend that it’s even going to be good. But I want to write something every day.
Do you have a favorite opera or a favorite opera composer?
And it is…?
It depends on what century we’re talking about. Nobody ever wrote anything as good as Mozart. And when it comes to the last 100 years, I tend to be conservative. I love Benjamin Britten’s operas. Peter Grimes is really a masterpiece. I can hear it an endless number of times. I like most everything of Richard Strauss, too. But I’m not crazy about twelve-tone operas. Twelve-tone doesn’t sing, as far as I’m concerned. When I hear Don Giovanni or Figaro, I feel like waving the white ﬂag and saying, “OK, forget it – I give up.”
What is it about Streetcar and the role of Blanche DuBois that you ﬁnd so appealing?
A lot of opera heroines are either glorious victims or virtuous saints. To be able to play somebody as complex as Blanche DuBois, even for an actress in the theater, is a real gift. We so rarely have characters like that in opera! I feel that the plays of Tennessee Williams are operas. All of them have a sort of melodrama that seems musical.
Then what does music bring to this?
What does the music bring to Otello? It enhances the story, creates drama and tension, and when there’s a moment of repose, the music ﬁlls in the blanks because music is not concrete – it’s completely abstract, so it adds another dimension. And André’s musical language is perfect for this story. He has the jazz element in his background and the lateRomantic European tradition, too.
André Previn wrote the score of Streetcar with you in mind. Did you have any special requests for him?
I asked André if I could I have a set piece or two that I could perform in concert. Well, he gave me six! That was a lot. Several of them are really stunning and they work very well. I’ve been singing them ever since – “I want magic” and “Sea air” are pieces people absolutely love. There’s another one I’ve been singing lately – “Soft people.” It’s short, but it’s so beautiful.
Do you have a favorite spot in the opera?
The powerful scene at the end of Act Two, the duet with Mitch. These two people come together and decide to offer each other some comfort. And her explanation of why she’s in trouble and her confession about what happened with her young lover is incredibly powerful when it’s set to music. That’s such a wonderful scene!
What was it like working with André Previn during the rehearsal process?
The wonderful thing about André is that he’s so experienced in music and art in so many ways. He had no qualms, for instance, about cutting the orchestration so that we could be fully heard and understood – that was no problem for him. Other composers, particularly those who are new to opera, don’t want to give up any notes or any orchestra colors. André would say, “I couldn’t hear that word, so I’m cutting ﬁve instruments from the orchestration.” So pretty soon, we had a sparse and nimble orchestration that always lets the singers shine through.
On the Record
Fleming, Futral, Gilfry, Griffey; San Francisco Opera, cond. Previn, dir. C. Graham (CD – Deutsche Grammophon, DVD -- Kultur)
Film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s play:
Leigh, Hunter, Brando, Malden, dir. Kazan (DVD -- Warner Home Video)
Lange, Lane, Baldwin, Goodman, dir. Jordan (DVD – Image Entertainment)
Suggestions for Further Reading
Previn by Michael Freedland, Century, 1991.
by Edward Greenfield,.. London: Allan, 1973.
Confronting Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire: Essays in Critical Pluralism edited by Philip C. Kolin, Greenwood, 1993.
Gentlemen Callers: Tennessee Williams, Homosexuality, and Mid-Twentieth-Century Broadway Drama
by Michael Paller, Palgrave, 2005.
The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams
by Donald Spoto, Da Capo Press, 1997.
Magical Muse: Millennial Essays on Tennessee Williams
by Ralph Voss, University of Alabama Press, 2002.
by Tennessee Williams, Doubleday, 1975.
No Minor Chords: My Days in Hollywood
by André Previn, Doubleday, 1991.
Tennessee Williams: A Casebook
edited by Robert F. Gross, Routledge, 2002.
Tennessee Williams: Plays, 1937-1955
, Library of America, 2000.
In addition to the most popular plays from the prime of Williams’s career (among them are Streetcar, The Glass Menagerie, Summer and Smoke, The Rose Tattoo, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), the collection includes much unfamiliar work, including Not About Nightingales, the early prison drama that was not performed until years after the playwright’s death.
Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea, 1998. Eleven critical essays.
Twentieth-Century Interpretations of A Streetcar Named Desire: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Jordan Yale Miller, Prentice-Hall, 1971.