Commentary Magazine


Brand-Name Opera

André Previn’s operatic version of the Tennessee Williams play, A Streetcar Named Desire, received its premiere in September by the San Francisco Opera in one of the most widely noticed classical-music events of recent years. Critics from around the world covered the opening-night performance, and the production, which starred the much-admired American soprano Renée Fleming in the role of Blanche Du Bois, was recorded live by Deutsche Grammophon for release on CD and videotaped for later telecast by PBS.1

It stands to reason that Previn’s first opera should have received such attention, not merely on account of his celebrity—he is one of the few classical musicians whose name is known to the public at large—but also because opera in America has lately entered a period of unprecedented popularity. Attendance, stimulated by the general adoption of English-language super- titles and the mass-market success of singers like Luciano Pavarotti and Cecilia Bartoli, has risen 34 percent since 1980, and several American operas composed in the last decade, among them John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer, John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, Anthony Davis’s Amistad, Tobias Picker’s Emmeline, Conrad Susa’s The Dangerous Liaisons, and Stewart Wallace’s Harvey Milk, have attracted media coverage not unlike that showered on A Streetcar Named Desire. All these operas were produced by major American houses; most were telecast by PBS; and several have been recorded commercially.

Yet despite the initial receptivity of audiences, none of these operas as yet shows any sign of entering the standard repertory, whether in America or abroad. To judge by the mostly tepid reviews of its premiere, moreover, Streetcar is unlikely to break the pattern. American opera-goers, it seems, are willing to give new works the benefit of the doubt, especially if the casts are stellar and the productions sufficiently expensive-looking, but a single viewing usually proves sufficient to slake their curiosity. Though every opera is a case unto itself, in important ways A Streetcar Named Desire exemplifies the underlying reasons why this should be so.

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Fifty-one years after it opened on Broadway, A Streetcar Named Desire remains one of the most frequently produced plays of the 20th century—it is still well-known enough, for instance, to have been parodied on The Simpsons—and the 1951 film version, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando, continues to be shown regularly on TV.2 As a result, most literate Americans know the story of Blanche Du Bois, the impoverished Southern belle who comes to New Orleans to live with her sister Stella, runs afoul of Stanley Kowalski, Stella’s brutish husband, and ends up in an insane asylum, having proved incapable of reconciling her fantasies of gentility with the coarse realities of working-class life.

Because the play is so famous—and because the Williams estate required him to do so—Philip Littell, the librettist, stuck closely both to its broad structural outlines and to its verbal essence. “The trick,” Littell has said, “is to make [the audience] think, ‘Why’d they hire a librettist?’ ” In this he has succeeded; despite extensive cuts and countless small textual changes, anyone who has seen the play will find Littell’s libretto to be impressively true to its spirit.

But to turn a famous piece of literature into an effective opera libretto entails far more than merely compressing the original text. Every great opera based on a familiar literary source involves an imaginative transformation of the original, one that typically goes far beyond the setting of old words to new music. In Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff, Shakespeare’s English words are freely translated into the Italian of Arrigo Boito; in Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin, Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel is opened up into a series of “lyrical scenes”; in Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, Henry James’s narrative voice is jettisoned in favor of dialogue, almost none of which appears in the original novella.

In the absence of such a transformation, one is almost inevitably left with an impression of mere tautology; and that is the case with Streetcar. Lotfi Mansouri, the general director of the San Francisco Opera, had long wanted to turn Williams’s play into an opera, and approached several composers before settling on Previn. “I cornered Stephen Sondheim,” he has recalled, “and he said, ‘Oh, it’s such a good play—it doesn’t need music’ Well, you can say that about Shakespeare’s Othello too.” But Boito’s Otello is a good libretto precisely because it is so different from Shakespeare’s Othello. By contrast, Littell’s Streetcar is so much like the original play that it is difficult at first glance to see why André Previn felt the need to set it to music.

As it happens, Previn’s own answer to this question bespeaks a similar misunderstanding of operatic dramaturgy: “I always thought [Streetcar] was an opera that was just missing the music, with all the excesses of lust and madness in the plot.” In fact, many opera libretti are melodramatic to a fault. But this is not because “excesses of lust and madness” are somehow intrinsic to opera—a notion that would have surprised Mozart. Rather, it is the nature of lyric theater that the underlying dramatic premises of an opera must be immediately intelligible to an audience.

It takes far longer to sing a sentence than to speak it. For this reason, opera libretti cannot rely on lengthy exposition but instead must go directly to the point; subtlety in opera is a function not of the words but of the music. Hence the need for boldly drawn yet believable characters, caught up in clear-cut dramatic situations that require prompt resolution. Yet as a play, Streetcar, far from being immediately intelligible, is full of decidedly peculiar people who fail to ring true. The only exception is the character of Blanche, whose very name has become a universally recognized symbol of feminine self-deception.

In the end, Streetcar is an “operatic” play only in the limited sense that its language is poetic to the point of overripeness. But in a libretto, language per se is the least important thing. Some libretti are elegantly wrought, others baldly functional, but no normal listener, even in the age of supertitles, attends more than casually to the verbal music of an opera. To say it again, great operas are not about words and music but about situations and music—and the music comes first.

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Music is so central to the effect of opera that it can justify even the most contorted dramaturgy. Beethoven’s Fidelio, Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Verdi’s II Trovatore, Wagner’s Gotterdämmerung, Tchaikovsky’s Onegin, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande: all these works pose theatrical problems of one kind or another, but all are readily acknowledged as operatic masterpieces because of the powerful individuality of their musical content. Unlike them, Previn’s score for A Streetcar Named Desire, though polished and accessible, is eclectic to the point of facelessness; by turns frankly romantic, mildly dissonant, and explicitly jazzy, it moves so freely from style to style that no personal voice emerges.

No doubt this has much to do with the fact that Previn spent his younger years working as a staff composer for MGM, where he scored a wide variety of films, among them Elmer Gantry and Bad Day at Black Rock, and served as music director for popular musical comedies like Gigi and My Fair Lady. Composers of film music not infrequently acquire a chameleonlike ability to change styles at will, and though Previn’s virtuosity and professionalism were justly admired by his Hollywood colleagues, he never developed the kind of recognizable signature style heard in the scores of such renowned film composers as Bernard Herrmann and Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

Previn later turned his back on the movie industry, writing with witty contempt of its lack of culture in his 1991 memoir, No Minor Chords: My Days in Hollywood. On many occasions he has complained about the initial reluctance of the classical-music establishment to take him seriously. “I would have been more readily forgiven for being the Boston Strangler,” he has said, “than for having written a film score.” All the more ironic, then, that Streetcar so clearly betrays his training. In much the same way that film composers “underscore” dialogue, Previn keeps the text well to the fore at all times; the overall impression one carrìes away is of over-long stretches of tonal but tuneless arioso supported by an orchestral commentary strangely devoid of independent musical life. Even the arias—nearly all of them for Blanche—are melodically unmemorable. No less ironically, the jazzy passages of A Streetcar Named Desire are bland and unidiomatic, giving no hint that they are the work of a highly gifted jazz pianist.

Most troubling of all is Previn’s singular inability to come to grips, musically, with the character of Stanley Kowalski. Granted, it is by definition difficult to write music for an inarticulate man—still another reason why Streetcar is a dubious subject for operatic adaptation—but Previn’s elegantly scored music fails altogether to suggest the character’s crude sensuality. A case in point is the scene in which Stanley, angered by the fact that Blanche has mysteriously squandered her sister’s inheritance, reminds Stella: “In the state of Louisiana, we have what is known as the Napoleonic Code. . . . What that means is what belongs to you belongs to me and vicey-versa.” Spoken by Marlon Brando in the film of Streetcar, these words instantaneously convey Stanley’s swaggering, semiliterate belligerence; as sung in Previn’s setting by the baritone Rodney Gilfry, they evoke, rather, a prissy solicitor warning his stubborn client of the perils of defalcation.

That Previn’s score has turned out to be a major disappointment, however, should have surprised no one. A fine orchestral conductor as well as an outstanding piano soloist and accompanist, he has spent little of his performing career in the opera house. As a composer, although he has written effective occasional pieces for such artists as the sopranos Kathleen Battle and Barbara Bonney, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and the pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, this was his very first venture into opera. Previn is now sixty-nine; virtually all repertory operas are the work of musicians who began writing for the stage at a comparatively early age—usually in their twenties—and who either specialized in opera (like Verdi and Wagner) or (like Mozart and Britten) devoted a substantial portion of their composing lives to it. The chances that a part-time composer would have succeeded in setting so problematic a libretto on his first try were therefore slim at best.

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Given all this, one inevitably wonders what possessed the San Francisco Opera to commission an operatic version of A Streetcar Named Desire in the first place, or to ask André Previn to write the score. For as I have already indicated, the opera was not Previn’s idea at all, but rather that of Lotfi Mansouri, the company’s general director.

That Streetcar was conceived not by a composer but by an impresario is wholly characteristic of today’s media-driven classical-music culture. Indeed, to nothing does the making of Streetcar bear so great a resemblance as to a modern-day film-studio deal. Mansouri, the producer, acquired the rights to a road-tested vehicle for a world-famous female star, hired Previn and Littell as the writers and Colin Graham as the director, then pitched the idea to Renée Fleming. No matter that the original property was clearly unsuitable for operatic adaptation, or that Previn was just as clearly the wrong choice as composer. The presence on the marquee of three highly marketable brand names—Renée Fleming, in André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire!—guaranteed a pre-sold audience whether or not the finished product was any good.

To be sure, Mansouri did not invent the brand-name approach to opera. Its imprint can be found on most of the new American operas that have attracted significant media attention in recent years. The Death of Klinghoffer, for example, dealt with a well-known news story of the recent past, while Harvey Milk and Amistad were politically-correct historical passion plays. But Mansouri has done much to perfect the formula. Witness his first commission for the San Francisco Opera, Conrad Susa’s The Dangerous Liaisons. An adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangéreuses, the celebrated 18th-century epistolary novel that had recently been made into a successful play and a popular movie, The Dangerous Liaisons starred Fleming, Frederica von Stade, and Thomas Hampson, three of the biggest names in opera. The only thing missing was an equally famous composer, a flaw Mansouri hastened to correct with Streetcar.

There can be little doubt that more such operas will be produced in the near future, both by the San Francisco Opera—it has already announced its next major commission, an adaptation by Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally of Sister Helen Prejean’s best-selling book, Dead Man Walking, the film version of which starred Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon—and by other, similarly inclined companies. John Harbison is currently composing The Great Gatsby for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and the possibilities are all but endless. “I’m a populist,” Mansouri has said. “I want to prove opera is for everyone, and I pick subjects with that in mind.” Why not Gone With the Wind? The Silence of the Lambs’? Titanic?

It is, of course, dangerously easy to make fun of the desire to bring opera to a wider audience—dangerous precisely because there is nothing intrinsically “elitist” about the great repertory operas. Masterpieces like Le Nozze di Figaro, Carmen, and Tosca—all of them, incidentally, adapted from once-famous literary sources—were deliberately designed to speak to the widest possible audience, and continue to do so to this day. The fact that a growing number of contemporary composers (and even producers) now seek to do the same thing is not contemptible but admirable. “I didn’t want twelve-tone,” Mansouri has said of Streetcar. “I wanted a gorgeous piece of music theater, accessible but not tacky, written for an audience, not academia.” Musically speaking, what could be more desirable?

Unfortunately, brand-name opera is noteworthy above all for its lack of musical distinction. In this, it resembles such recent Broadway shows as Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, and The Lion King, little more than grandiose visual spectacles accompanied by innocuous music. At the same time, it also recalls the lavishly produced five-act historical pageants put on by the Paris Opera in the 19th century, grand operas like Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots and Auber’s La Muette de Portici that were once as popular as Miss Saigon. Now they are forgotten, not because their librettos are dated but because their scores are dull.

And therein lies the fatal flaw in Lotfi Mansouri’s recipe. Impresarios do not write opera, composers do. The San Francisco Opera made every effort to bring Andre Previn’s score to life: Colin Graham’s direction was admirably straightforward, Michael Yeargan’s sets were wonderfully vivid, and the excellent cast, especially Fleming and Elizabeth Futral as Stella, performed with skill and conviction. But while a truly brilliant musical genius could perhaps have risen to so auspicious, amply funded, and deeply problematic an occasion, Mansouri perversely chose to entrust the central element of A Streetcar Named Desire to a weekend composer whose chief credential was his celebrity. It is hard to imagine a more telling metaphor for the condition of American high culture in the age of the media event.

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Footnotes

1 One aria from A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche’s “I want magic!,” was recorded in advance of the premiere by Fleming with James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and is now available on I Want Magic!: American Opera Arias (London 289 460 567-2LH).

2 One of the most impressive features of the film of Streetcar is the score by Alex North. Among the first by a Hollywood composer to make idiomatic use of jazz, it creates and sustains a sultry, threatening atmosphere of sexual obsession. The original soundtrack, now available on CD, remains a landmark in the history of film music (Capitol CDP 7 95597 2).

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About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.




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