A Streetcar Named Desire
By Montague Gammon III
Stage director Sam Helfrich promises that the Virginia Opera Association production of A Streetcar Named Desire, composer André Previn’s treatment of Tennessee Williams’ famous and famously quoted play, will give audiences an “an incredible actress“ in the role of Blanche, and a “portrayal” of that famously lost soul that will “very [much] surprise … audiences who know the play.”
The Vivian Leigh movie from 1951, and numerous productions of the play, have made whole generations familiar with the 1947 early boomer generation story of Blanche DuBois, her brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski and Blanche’s sister Stella Kowalski.
Essentially homeless, romantically wounded, penniless but with airs of self-proclaimed aristocracy, Blanche comes to live with Stella and Stanley in their small New Orleans home. Odd person out, disappointed and frustrated, Blanche seeks solace in reveries, nostalgia and denials that elide into delusion, until the long simmering, alcohol heated stew of anger and sensuality erupts and forces her to confront a nightmarish reality that ironically, others deny as one more of her fantasies.
“Blanche is a much more complicated character that she first seems, and definitely not crazy,” Helfrich maintains.
Helfirich repeatedly knits the original play and the opera tightly together, “It is a play, but it’s a play with a score” and he speaks proudly of the “incredible performers” making the point that this cast is not just singers and not just actors, but skilled artists who can live up to Previn’s musical demands, and to those of producing a thorough psychological exploration of the Williams characters, as detailed by Previn’s music.
“What I now see,” Helfrich says, is that “the music does so much descriptive work. It describes the mood of a scene and how a character is feeling in certain moments and describes the action.”
So Helfrich has concentrated on toning down the performers’ emotional displays, or, in some instances, setting them in contrast to the music.
The core of the cast is Kelly Cae Hogan as Blanche DuBois (she did Brünnhilde in the VOA’s 2011 Die Walkure), David Adam Moore as Stanley (a role he sang for Lyric Opera of Chicago), with Stella Kowalski played by Julia Ebner, (Gretel, VOA, 2011).
He and scenery designer Andromache Chalfant, who is doing her first set for VOA after racking up a string of national credits, have also created a spare, character focussed look for the stage.
“We started to look at the geography of their living space,” and something he says the music describes: “The “stuckness’ of those three people in that situation.”
Helfrich describes the set as non-realistic – “there’s no apartment, no upstairs” – a long, rather shallow platform, surrounded by “areas of light and dark,” on which are placed three “iconic” objects, each identified with one character.
Stanley has a couch on which he lounges. Stella is linked to her kitchen table. Blanche’s totem, if it may be called that, is the trunk in which she carts her few remaining belongings from place to place. “Her whole life is in that trunk,” the director says.
Helfrich does not quibble with the suggestion that he is the director of choice for the operatic road less travelled.
He hardly could, since his online resume includes last year’s VOA production of the somewhat surreal and still modern Phillip Glass opera Orphée, along with productions elsewhere of a double bill of Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night composed by Dominick Argento (USA, first performed 1981) and French composer Francis Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine (premiered 1959), the American premiere of Philip Glass’ Kepler (USA, premiered 2009), Nixon in China (USA, premiered 1987) at Eugene Opera, the world premiere of Michael Dellaira’s The Secret Agent (USA, 2011), and and a production of Anthony Davis’ Amistad (USA, premiered 1997). A March production of Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (USA, 2000) is coming up at Eugene Opera.
Actually, he points out, his preferences are for the [artistic and chronological extremes] of Baroque and modern opera.
He’s fluent in Russian (in which he majored as an undergrad), Spanish and French, and trained as a playwright – which art he practiced professionally for 7 years. Speaking as a playwright, scholar, university lecturer and director, he rates Streetcar author Tennessee Williams as one of the “five best of all time,” ranking the 20th Century American with Shakespeare and Moliere.
“The play feels naturalistic, but the language it completely poetic,” Helfrich says.
The New York Times, according to the VOA website, quoted Previn as saying “I think ‘Streetcar’ is an opera already, except that it doesn’t have music.”
A Streetcar Named Desire
André Previn, composer
Feb. 16, 20, 22, 24. (Other performances in Richmond and Fairfax)
Virginia Opera Association
Harrison Opera House
160 E. Virginia Beach Blvd.
Norfolk, Virginia 23510