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A trunk. A sofa. A dinette set. In the mind of stage director Sam Helfrich, these items represent the three main characters in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” a 1998 opera composed by André Previn and based on Tennessee Williams’ classic 1947 play. The Virginia Opera production of “Streetcar” opens tonight at Harrison Opera House in Norfolk.
In the opera, and play, Blanche DuBois is stage center as a faded Southern belle who has endured a string of troubles, culminating in losing the family home, a Mississippi plantation called Belle Reve. The trunk is hers, and contains all she owns.
Stella Kowalski is her sister, living in New Orleans with her animalistic husband and unaware of Blanche’s travails until she lands at their doorstep, with nowhere else to go. The table stands for Stella’s domesticity.
Stanley Kowalski is the abusive, coarse husband to whom Stella is powerfully attracted, in the earthiest way. He claims the couch as his kingly throne, from which he surveys his two-room domain.
These objects represent the characters, and will suggest scenes familiar to those who have seen the film and stage versions of “Streetcar.”
However, for this opera, Helfrich has his own distinctive interpretation.
Helfrich, who helmed the Philip Glass opera “Orphée” for Virginia Opera last season, delves into the roots of a piece to find his approach.
The script mentions light a lot, and so the set reflects that. Blanche is drawn to the shadows. Stanley is linked to a garish, glaring light.
The director said he dislikes realistic sets, because they trigger audiences to focus on the period details instead of on the relationships playing out onstage. So the stage is stripped down, with the three key set pieces and not much else, in a black box raised 14 inches above the stage floor.
With that setting, Helfrich hopes to imply the characters are “under a microscope” in that tiny New Orleans apartment. There’s no privacy and nowhere to hide.
Most people caught “Streetcar” through the 1951 film starring Marlon Brando as a brutish Stanley and Vivien Leigh as a wispy, neurotic Blanche. Each, along with Kim Hunter (Stella), won Oscars for their portrayals.
“We went deeper into the psychology of the characters than what we’d seen onstage or in the film,” Helfrich said, speaking for the production’s artistic team.
“Blanche is often portrayed as nutty, as an alcoholic and as this fallen woman. And, by the end, totally insane.”
However, as he scrutinized the script, Helfrich began to see Blanche as “a smart person who is more than just a victim. She uses tools that are her own tools to react to a very adverse situation and, ultimately, to fight the horror that befalls her.”
Blanche and Stanley’s encounters are sexually charged, Helfrich said. Blanche coyly flirts with Stanley.
In Act Three, as the story careens to a conclusion, while Stella is at the hospital giving birth, Stanley may or may not rape Blanche. Stanley prefaces that scene by saying to her, “We’ve had this date coming for a long time.”
Previn wrote a four-minute interlude for that moment in the opera. “So you have to stage something.” What Helfrich came up with is “not offstage, but it’s not literal. I want it to be ambiguous.”
The audience should wonder if he really did that, as Stella will when she comes home with the baby, and as Blanche might as she mentally collapses.
Soon after, Blanche gets carted off to a madhouse. “I see the whole ending of the opera as an escape for her. As a way out of a situation that is untenable, that she can no longer exist in.”
He has come to see Stanley and Stella as representing the future, “and Blanche has to be cut out.” She is “a threat to their prosperity, to that American dream represented by the 1950s,” he said.
Helfrich sounded defensive of Blanche as he said, “My understanding of her character, she does not deserve to be banished to a mental institution,” adding that he hoped audiences “will feel the same way.”
Singers reflected on their roles, which are among the best-known characters in the history of American theater.
Soprano Kelly Cae Hogan, who portrays Blanche, last sang for Virginia Opera in the leading role of Brunnhilde in Wagner’s “Die Walküre,” in 2011. She sees a kinship between the two characters.
Like Brunnhilde, “Blanche is really a dramatic and vocal tour de force,” Hogan said.
At first, while learning the part, Hogan said she found it difficult to grasp how Previn’s melodies intertwined with his harmonies. “To make it easy for the audience to hear, it’s hard on the singer.”
She described the music as neo-romantic. Rather than a series of arias, duets, trios and quartets broken up by partly sung/partly spoken dialogue called recitative, “Streetcar” is mostly sung through. That is, Williams’ script, trimmed from the original stage play, is sung, with occasional solo breakouts that resemble arias.
Reflecting the story, the music goes to extreme highs and lows, both in terms of emotion and pitch.
Successful operas have universal themes, she said. In “Walküre,” it is a father-daughter conflict. “With ‘Streetcar’ it’s desire. A desire for a beautiful world, and a desire to not face the cruelties of life.”
As Stella, soprano Julia Ebner plays “this woman who’s caught between the man she loves and her sister.”
“I find the scenes in which Stanley is telling Stella about all these horrible things he’s heard about Blanche very hard. I feel what Stella’s feeling. She doesn’t want to hear these horrible things, but she does trust her husband.”
She found the music challenging, too. “I really like it. It’s very American, very jazzy. There’s trumpet swells and saxophone. You really hear New Orleans in it.”
Ebner said it sounds to her like modern American opera that is influenced by jazz. She said the score “makes the underlying and ever-present tension between the characters more palpable. It also illuminates the moments of fantasy and reality.”
Hogan has to play a role originated by the great soprano Renée Fleming, with the San Francisco Opera.
David Adam Moore, who described his voice as lyric baritone, has to play Brando’s part.
“Some literary critics say this role is unplayable, largely because Marlon Brando was this immense talent,” Moore said. Brando played Stanley on the New York stage and in the film, and both projects were overseen by Williams. Brando’s depiction of Stanley is widely considered to be definitive.
“What are the rest of us supposed to do?”
Moore counts himself lucky that he has not seen the film. But he’s challenged by his own nature. “I have a disgust for violence,” and Stanley’s full of it.
There’s not a lot about Stanley’s history in the script, so Moore picked up whatever clues he could to explain Stanley’s abusive behavior.
“What it feels like is a guy who is very happy with his situation, and experiences this situation getting interrupted. And does what he can to get back to that happier state that he started out in.”
That’s his journey, and Blanche’s, too, via “Streetcar.”
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By Teresa Annas
© February 16