Andre Previn

Andre Previn rehearses with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Dec. 2, 1986. (Rosemary Kaul / Los Angeles Times / May 21, 2009)

When you enter the small sitting room in André Previn's Upper East Side apartment, the cluttered space resembles a virtual survey exhibition of the 85-year-old composer's far-flung career and personal life.

In plain sight on a table in the back were his four Academy Award statuettes — the first he won for "Gigi" in 1959 and the last for "My Fair Lady" in 1965.

To the left stood floor-to-ceiling bookshelves overflowing with orchestral scores, some of them for his own music. After leaving Hollywood in the late '60s, Previn dedicated himself to classical music and served as music director of the London Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic. Near the window, photographs of his extended family were arranged in a jumble: children, ex-wives (he's had five, including actress Mia Farrow and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter) and grandchildren.

After a few minutes, Previn made his entrance. He was using a walker and was helped to his seat by a personal aide. If he appeared physically frail, he soon proved mentally sharp. In a wide-ranging interview, he was by turns quick-witted, acerbic, humorous and ruminative. On this day, he was dressed in a sweater and slacks, his gray, thinning hair combed back.

"It's strange that none of my kids are musically talented," he mused when asked about the family photographs. "Well — my youngest son, Lucas, he's a wonderful rock guitarist. It's the kind of music I can't stand. But he's very good at it."

Previn was seated in an armchair beneath a series of posters for his opera "A Streetcar Named Desire." The work, which premiered in San Francisco in 1998, will be performed at Los Angeles Opera starting Sunday, with Renée Fleming reprising her role as Blanche DuBois.

"I always thought that the play was really an opera but with the music missing," said Previn, who worked with librettist Philip Littell to adapt the Tennessee Williams play for the operatic stage. "I don't know why more of his plays haven't been turned into operas. They are all excellent — every single one of them."

The composer was commissioned by San Francisco Opera, and he wrote the piece with Fleming in mind for Blanche. When it debuted, the production received mixed reviews, some of them harsh. Previn's score is often characterized as lush and romantic in the old-Hollywood style, and it features some show-stopping arias, including "I Can Smell the Sea Air."

The opera has been described as having New Orleans jazz influences, but Previn bristled at the suggestion. (The composer was a jazz pianist for years but has largely given up that facet of his career.)

"That would be a little too obvious, don't you think?" he said. "But if you seem them there, that's fine."

Previn conducted the world premiere in San Francisco, but these days, his conducting jobs are more limited because of the infirmities of age, which he said includes a bad case of arthritis.

Fleming said separately that she had lobbied the Metropolitan Opera in New York for years to produce "Streetcar" but to no avail.

"I think one of the problems we have in this country is an intellectual backlash against American opera and composers of anything that smells like an accessible style," she said.

The soprano revisited the role in a new, semi-staged production that was seen at Carnegie Hall last year and then traveled to the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

The three performances of "Streetcar" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion — it will be the semi-staged production — will provide a rare opportunity to hear Previn's classical music in the city where he grew up.

At age 10, he and his family fled Nazi Germany and eventually settled in Hollywood. The family lived in an apartment on Sycamore Avenue just off Hollywood Boulevard, and the young Previn attended Beverly Hills High School.

Previn clearly harbors mixed feelings about the city and said he hasn't been back to L.A. in nearly two decades. (He said it was "unlikely" that he would return to see "Streetcar" performed.)

"There is something that always struck me about L.A., and that is that they can argue all they want about putting up 16 new museums and 14 new orchestras, but it's all about the movies," he said. "It always is. They can't get away from it."

A different tune

For many years, Previn played a different tune about the movie business. As a musically gifted high school student, he landed his first studio job at 16 at MGM and happily paid his dues as an orchestrator — the person who translates the composer's ideas into playable sheet music.