Virginia Opera’s third installment in their 2013 American series, A Streetcar Named Desire, an opera in three acts premiered at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts on Friday, March 1, 2013 at 8:00 pm. Originally written in 1947 by American playwright Thomas “Tennessee” Williams, who received the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Streetcar was finally presented as an opera by first-class composer André Previn and premiered at the San Francisco Opera in 1998. Now fifteen years later, produced by acclaimed director Sam Helfrich, it offers strong themes of sexual tension, familial dysfunction, and psychiatric delusions of grandeur with stellar musical performances.
A nearly complete stranger to opera, this production presented a perfect opportunity for me to delve into the ordered, pristine world of classical opera. With the added advantage of being sung in English with English subtitles, my complete focus on a well-qualified cast and creative team made for a very intriguing evening. I found the singing to be exceptional and flawless.
Streetcar is widely recognized as a classic; often required reading in thousands of high schools across the U.S. However, the advantage of Previn’s carefully chosen operatic score heightens the story and draws the audience in far more deeply. Under the auspices of renowned conductor Ari Pelto, the music in the first three acts suggests a somewhat seedy, honky-tonk atmosphere—the kind that would be played outside and inside New Orleans brothels and similar places, like the Flamingo Hotel. During violent, dramatic scenes, such as Stanley fighting a pregnant Stella, and his poker playing buddies jumping in to get him off of her, the music score is intentionally discordant, dramatic, and jarring—as it should be. At one point, I nearly jumped out of my seat with the fierceness of the orchestra’s musicianship. The music at times also felt dreadful, emotionally sad, and spirit-defeating to me – especially during the rape.
Although the dyad of Blanche DuBois (Soprano Kelly Cae Hogan), Stanley Kowalski (Baritone David Adam Moore), and Stella Kowalski (Soprano Julia Ebner) share prominent aspects of their characters throughout the opera, it is Blanche’s psychic choices, emanating from her troubled beginnings, that tragically play out in the Kowalski home with explosive consequences. Had Blanche not come destitute to New Orleans, it is likely that Stanley and Stella, her younger sister, would have continued in their own mutually agreeable dysfunctionality held together by unbridled dominance and strong sexual attraction. It is probable that two women could grow to adulthood with very different childhood memories. We are not told specifically how Stella feels; her memories are of a more sanitized nature; she recalls fondly that she enjoyed helping her big sister. That is not to conclude, of course, that her childhood was immaculate.
At the core of Blanche’s woundedness is a familial dysfunction and long family history of sexual conduct (promiscuity, perversion, pedophilia, prostitution, and homosexuality); alcoholism; gender discrimination (male domination); racial stereotyping, and psychiatric challenges (delusions of grandeur), to name a few. We are left to our own devises to surmise how and why Stella developed a different and more “normal” memory of this developmental period.
Blanche, exuding vulnerability and emotional frailty, singing the aria “I Can Smell the Sea Air,” finds that bathing calms the memory of her many illicit sexual experiences. However, Blanche cannot completely erase the past, and her bathing offers but a brief respite, never completely eradicating her indiscretions. We can also surmise that Blanche’s constant need to wash her body symbolizes her need for spiritual, emotional, and mental cleansing.
In Scene Six, Blanche attempts to metaphorically describe to Mitch how being in love with her husband, Allan Grey, had been like having the world revealed in bright, vivid light, which has been missing since Allan’s suicide, and that in her inconsequential sexual affairs with numerous men, she has experienced only dim light. We can conclude then that poor light represents disillusionment and Blanche’s tarnished sexual maturity, while bright light represents her lost youthful sexual innocence. Singing the aria, “I Want Magic!” therefore, we glimpse Blanche’s desire to retain love and youth and her skewed moral compass in the words, “Real? Who wants real? I know I don’t want it; I want magic. Magic, yes, that’s what I want. That’s what I die and live for.” We can conclude that bright light, therefore, represents Blanche’s youthful sexual innocence, while poor light represents her tarnished sexual maturity and disillusionment.
In Scene Seven, Blanche is bathing again, sitting in the tub offstage singing “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” originally written in 1933. The song’s lyrics say that if both lovers believe in their imagined reality, then it’s no longer “make-believe.” These lyrics sum up Blanche’s approach to life because she believes that her lying is essentially harmless and her only means of enjoying a better quality of life. Of poignant note, Blanche sings that without her lover, the world is a “temporary parking place;” nothing seems real. An accurate assessment, given her spiraling mental decline. The song’s final words sum up Blanche’s feelings:
It’s a Barnum and Bailey world
Just as phony as it can be
But it wouldn’t be make-believe
If you believed in me.
My impression of Stanley is as a sensual brute who utilizes his sexual chemistry with both women; dominates Stella; is physically and emotionally abusive and uses cruel, crude and violent behavior to remain “king of his castle.” Nevertheless, I found myself waxing and waning sympathetically between Blanche and Stanley’s characters, seeing both at various times as sad and pathetic victims of life.
While Stella, a “Southern belle,” can rightly claim more aristocratic beginnings, she nevertheless ‘settles’ for a working-class life by marrying Stanley, a man exuding primitivism, brutality, and a lust for life. Stella’s arietta “I can hardly stand it when he’s away for a night” succinctly and aptly provides a brief peek into her psychic foundation. But Stella fails to recognize how she is similar to her sister and how she might wind up in the same place if Stanley’s abuse ever got out of hand. She is unable to see the connection between her dependence on Stanley and her sister’s dependence on men—many of them. Nor is she, unfortunately, able to face the truth of her sister’s rape by her own husband, choosing instead to believe that committing her sister to a mental asylum is better for everyone.
What stayed with me throughout tenor Harold “Mitch” Mitchell’s (Scott Ramsay) artful, melancholy rendition of “The Love Aria” was a sort of naiveté in the preceding dialogue which left me wondering if he was really that gullible about women and about life. Plaintively singing, “I’m not getting any younger … I know it’s true …[T]hat the time is running out …” Mitch delivers a most powerful truth, “Still believe in love, no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve been through, you still need to love.” On a lighter side, I immensely enjoyed his strong tenor voice and the aria’s lines where he bragged about his height and weight. One of the few bright spots in all that angst, the audience erupted in peals of laughter at his ill-advised inquiry of Blanche’s age and weight. As the world knows very well, a lady never tells.
Running Time: Two hours forty-five minutes with two-15-minute intermissions.
A Streetcar Named Desire has one more performance today, March 3, 2013 at 2 PM at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts - 4400 University Drive, in Fairfax, VA (the intersection of Braddock Road and Route 123). Purchase tickets here. Check their calendar for future events.