From script to libretto

The Lyric Opera of Chicago's season opens Saturday with "Elektra" and will close in April with "A Streetcar Named Desire." Here are excerpts from the "Lyric 2012-13 Season Companion" about translating the Tennessee Williams play into an opera.

A Streetcar Named Desire: The Production

By Jack Zimmerman

"A Streetcar Named Desire" marks the first time in five years that Lyric Opera of Chicago is presenting the work of a living composer. André Previn composed "Streetcar" in 1995 with a libretto by Philip Littell based on the famed Tennessee Williams play.

Previn's score for "Streetcar" is straight-ahead 20th-century tonal, not unlike the works of Benjamin Britten and Samuel Barber. He uses a full orchestra for his musical storytelling but greatly pares down the instrumentation whenever voices are deployed. There is no overture, just some bluesy brass chords and the opera is underway. While the story takes place in New Orleans, Previn's music never falls into Dixie kitsch. "The play is much better than that," says Previn. "In its own way, it's an opera already, just without the singing."

"Streetcar" premiered in San Francisco in 1998. In Chicago, stage action will be directed by Brad Dalton in his Lyric Opera debut. Evan Rogister, who will make his Lyric debut this season leading "Rigoletto," will conduct.

Jack Zimmerman is Lyric Opera's subscriber relations manager.

The Creation of the 'Streetcar' Libretto

By Derek Matson

Born and raised in New York City, actor, singer and songwriter Philip Littell moved to Los Angeles in 1976 and by the mid-1980s was performing in local Shakespeare productions, avant-garde plays, cabarets, rock bands and performance-art pieces. While his work in opera began in 1987, playing the role of the Dancing Master in Christopher Alden's production of "Ariadne auf Naxos" at Long Beach Opera, his major breakthrough as a librettist came in 1994 with San Francisco Opera's world premiere of "The Dangerous Liaisons." He has since written the words to operas, cantatas, song cycles and symphonies for a veritable who's who of contemporary composers, including Conrad Susa, Jake Heggie, Stephen Hartke, Michael Torke and Frank Ticheli.

In condensing "A Streetcar Named Desire" from a play of 11 scenes to a libretto of nine, one of Littell's most significant contributions was the addition of language for Mitch that economically conveys his deep devotion to his mother and his belief in true love. These interpolated words became the aria "I'm not a boy," and Littell characterized the challenge of creating these entirely new lyrics as "doing a believable skin graft." Other changes to the play include the repositioning of Blanche's speech about "soft people" to a slightly later moment when she's alone (in the play she speaks these words to Stella); the "fast-forward" sequence in the birthday party scene; the expansion of the episode with the Mexican flower woman; and the final repetitions of Blanche's "Whoever you are."

Littell was opposed to papering over what he termed "the sleazy side of the play," which in his view is a source for much of the piece's power. "Blanche drinks a lot. She molests underage kids. She's psychotic," he insisted in an interview. "Blanche's achievement is that she makes magic out of dross. I tried to make sure the dross was still there." That said, the libretto does make a few tweaks that soften the possible shock of Blanche's seedier side. On bidding the young collector goodbye, Williams' Blanche muses, "I've got to be good — and keep my hands off children." Littell's libretto replaces that line's compromising final word with an ellipsis. And in the birthday confrontation with Mitch, Blanche does not confess to her stay at the disreputable "Tarantula Arms" hotel as she does in the play, nor does she admit to her "many intimacies with strangers" and her ruinous liaison with the 17-year-old student that sent her packing for New Orleans.

Derek Matson, a dramaturge and translator, holds a position in the Rehearsal Department at Lyric Opera. Recent dramaturgy credits include "Want" and "Sex with Strangers" at Steppenwolf Theatre as well as Mary Zimmerman's productions of "Armida" and "Lucia di Lammermoor" at the Metropolitan Opera.

Vocalism in 'A Streetcar Named Desire'

By Roger Pines

Every role in this opera has a particular challenge built in: If the text is to emerge with authenticity, the principals must deliver it with the proper accent. The broadness of southern vowels can give a particular honeyed quality to much of the dialogue.

André Previn wrote the role of Blanche for Renée Fleming, who will appear as Blanche again in the Lyric Opera's production. The role is immensely grateful vocally, with frequent opportunities for arching legato phrasing. A major requirement is the ability to float the voice in sustained piano and pianissimo passages. The role needs an exceptional degree of feminine warmth in the sound. Blanche has four full-scale arias, each with very specific needs in terms of textual colors. As with every other role in the opera, one must be at ease in conversational passages, where line-by-line communicativeness is more important than sheer voice. On the other hand, many portions of Blanche's music need grand-scale expansiveness — for example, the climax of her aria "I want magic," in which the soprano's vocal resources can be likened to those of, say, Verdi's Desdemona.

Stella is a high lyric soprano who must be equally at ease in light, casual conversational passages and more lyrically oriented phrasing. Mitch is a lyric tenor, ideally one of particular tonal brightness in whose singing the words can make an instant impact.

Of the four principals, it is Stanley who consistently makes his expressive points through declamatory passages. His music is colored throughout by a certain machismo, and the degree of sheer thrust in the voice (as in the finale of Act One, with its cries of "Stell-ahhhhh!") makes the role a formidably demanding one. Virtually every baritone who has sung the role has also been successful as Don Giovanni, but Stanley asks for a degree of power in the voice that Mozart's character matches only in his final scene.

Roger Pines is Lyric Opera's dramaturge.

Lyric 2012-13 Season Companion

By Lyric Opera of Chicago, 88 pages, $17

Available at lyricopera.orgoperashop

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