When Tennessee Williams’ play, A Streetcar Named Desire, debuted in New York in 1951, the Times’ theater critic called it, “a quietly woven study of intangibles.” In the years since, the play has become a film and an opera, and it still is an unvarnished look at what can happen to innocence. HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports on the opera by Andre Previn, opening amidst great anticipation this week in Honolulu.
Hawai‘i Opera Theatre’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” runs January 27, 29, and 31st at the NBC Concert Hall. Stories like the intimate family portrait in “A Streetcar Named Desire” could tremble, wither, and blow away up against all the tinsel and bombast of today. That’s pretty much what happens to the heroine, Blanche DuBois.
“Blanche has told lies , but what she’s really done is try to pick herself up from the difficulties of the past.”
Stage director Brad Dalton mounted the London premiere of this opera with the composer, Andre Previn. He also directed the Carnegie Hall, Washington, Chicago, and Los Angeles productions. He says Blanche’s struggle to be what she's not, is really quite familiar.
“No matter how accomplished we are, or how we appear perfect, there’s a side of us that is bewildered by life, that’s trying passionately to understand it.”
Granted, nobody's perfect. Blanche would have been fine, if her husband hadn’t killed himself—was it really her fault? An English teacher, she sees the poetry and fragile beauty of the world--was that young very young, lover really so very wrong? Did the school have to fire her? Then, all the other men, was there really no other way to make a living?
“In that Southern culture, you keep surviving. You cover it up, don’t tell. Just put that face on, keep going. Don’t ever let on that anything is wrong.”
Jill Gardner, soprano from North Carolina, plays Blanche DuBois for Hawai‘i Opera Theatre. The opera premiered in 1998 with Renee Fleming; the role of Blanche was written with her in mind. The music excerpts in this story feature Ms. Fleming.
Gardner: “There’s a bit of class warfare going on, but she’s also attracted, too. That’s the point, all these things live within us. That’s why I think the beauty is that it really resonates in so many ways with what’s happening today. Women have been fighting for so long for their own equal place, and whether we’ll be able to find it or not, with our sensitivities intact…that’s exactly right.”
The 1951 film version of Streetcar, was Marlon Brando's breakout role as a highly charged Stanley Kowalski, husband of Stella, Blanche’s sister. Vivien Leigh played Blanche, in a film whose jazz inflected score by Alex North heightened the tension between appearances and a sort of underbelly. Jazz influences the opera as well, Previn was first a jazz pianist, but the opera's mood is not so raw.
A homosexual American poet in the 1950’s, Tennessee Williams paints a grim picture of reality’s effect on sensitive types.
Dalton: “What Tennessee Williams mapped out in this piece is so disturbing and difficult to witness, and that theatricality is what allows it to have a musical treatment without seeming extraneous or tacked on to the piece. Also, Tennessee Williams first was a poet, and that poetry lends itself to musical treatment very well.”
“It’s a cry for those in the world who feel bewildered or misunderstood, belittled or marginalized, those people who don’t fit into the fabric of normal in society. It’s really a cry for the misunderstood in the world. And I think basically when you say that, you realize that all of us feel that way. ”
And, leaving the theater, we're left to ponder the lies we choose to believe.