It’s not often that a contemporary composer succeeds in adding to the permanent repertoire of operas, but that’s exactly what’s happening with the opera version of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. San Francisco Opera premiered André Previn’s Streetcar in September 1998, and it’s been in production on and off ever since.
In that time, only two singers have left their mark on multiple productions in the leading role of Blanche Du Bois: Renée Fleming, for whom the part was written, and Beverly O’Regan Thiele, the soprano who will sing it this weekend for Opera Santa Barbara. O’Regan Thiele, who began her involvement with Previn’s Streetcar as Fleming’s cover, has now sung the role as the principal in three other productions — with Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Washington National Opera, and Opera Grand Rapids. On Friday night and Sunday afternoon, this outstanding singing actress will bring her wealth of experience in this and other important contemporary operas to the Granada Theatre for what is sure to be one of the year’s most memorable musical events.
The Williams play, a strong candidate for greatest American drama, has almost unlimited potential for opera, yet, as many a thwarted composer or librettist can attest, potential counts for nothing when it comes to creating a singable, playable, and musically appealing production. Previn, with his intuitive understanding of pop and classical, stage and screen, would seem to be more than a match for Williams’s layered complexity, yet the writer’s estate continued to throw out obstacles during the work’s development that led to an initial version that ran too long and asked too much of its Blanche. Subsequent revisions have tamed both the massive central role and the sprawling libretto, but the story’s central challenge remains — how to create a context for Blanche that she does not immediately overwhelm. Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando discovered one way, but ever since Brando threw Stanley into overdrive, directors have been searching for a way to bring out the nuance in the script and restore balance to the ensemble.
Omer Ben Seadia was selected to helm this production, which was originally conceived by Opera Santa Barbara’s artistic director José Maria Condemi for the San Francisco Opera Center in 2014. Ben Seadia was his apprentice assistant in that production. She praises Previn for the way that “the complexity of the characters is reflected in the music.” She told me last week that the play is “the vortex” from which this opera emerged, and as such, “it could not be richer, more layered, or more complex.” According to Ben Seadia, the opera takes the most significant emotional moments of Streetcar and expands them, and, although it’s “clear that this is still Blanche’s opera, we see into Stanley, Stella, and Mitch just as much.”
Reflecting on the material’s enduring value, she said, “Williams penetrates the mystery of things.” The story avoids answering the demand for clear-cut good guys and bad guys. There is no happy ending, and no tragic one, for either Blanche or for Stella and Stanley. “I’m always interested in the imperfect,” said Ben Seadia.
For O’Regan Thiele, the challenge that Blanche has presented to actresses such as Vivien Leigh, who nearly lost her mind from playing the role, is thankfully not an issue. “That’s the blessing of being a singer,” she told me, “there’s a saving grace in having something else to do besides just act. It really does affect me though.” Thiele sees Blanche as “trapped in a romantic tradition” and “walking under a cloud.” She loves the Previn score, which she characterized as “all over the place,” and she reassured me with an answer that it seems wise to share with everyone. “No, Stanley does not sing ‘Stella!’ He yells it, the same as in the play.”
A Streetcar Named Desire will be presented by Opera Santa Barbara on Friday, April 24, and Sunday, April 26, at the Granada Theatre. For tickets and information, visit operasb.org or call the Granada box office at 899-2222.
Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that José Maria Condemi is currently Opera Santa Barbara’s artistic director, and that Omer Ben Seadia was chosen to direct this production.