How did your association with A Streetcar Named Desire begin?
My production originated at Austin Lyric Opera, where they wanted a less realistic approach. Streetcar has such incredibly descriptive, highly emotional music—to put it into two realistic rooms, going back and forth all night, seemed a mistake. The production was a little hallucinogenic and on the edge. The operatic gestures of the piece could come alive through huge, saturated light. I adapted those ideas for the 2003 performances by the London Symphony Orchestra, with Renée Fleming as Blanche and André Previn conducting, and for Chicago in 2013. At Washington National Opera, my staging was based on what I’d done in Austin.
How is this production different from the London version?
They were able to create an orchestra pit in London, so the setup was like a normal opera staging. Here, the orchestra is upstage at the back, with the singers downstage. The orchestra is also surrounded by a shell upstage, which can be used to create colors through lighting. Downstage is a huge platform that’s a little raked and leaning into the orchestra pit, and singers make entrances through the orchestra upstage.
This version must make certain stage directions tricky to present—for example, the drunken Stanley throwing the radio out the window.
It’s very necessary to see the violent side of Stanley. They make radios out of wood that can be smashed, and one of the poker players has a baseball bat, so Stanley takes the bat and smashes the radio with it onstage. That’s stronger than having him throw it out the window.
What other important directorial decisions figure in your staging?
The piece doesn’t have a chorus, but I have a group of seven actors, all of them believable as “Stanley types” with that kind of brutal sensibility, while also giving a sense of New Orleans onstage.
The singer playing the young collector doubles as the ghost of Blanche’s husband who died. He actually appears at the beginning of Act Two, but only in Blanche’s mind. She’s holding his love letters, and he just walks by her. The payoff is that later, in her monologue, the two of them come face to face and she can look him in the eye and say, “I know, I saw, you disgust me,” at which he runs out of the room.
I also have onstage an old relative from Belle Reve, who appears at the very beginning wearing a tiara. Then, at the end, when Blanche is going crazy in her monologue, the relative dresses her in an old Victorian gown and places the tiara on her head, as if she’s saying “Come back to Belle Reve.”
It’s hard to imagine an audience not feeling deeply for Blanche.
People want her to survive. Everyone can relate to that sense of injury, whether from some moment in our childhood, from our parents, or in our development as human beings. We have our inner version of ourselves that always feels underappreciated, misunderstood, and we long to express ourselves emotionally and completely, yet something in the world batters that and holds it back. Blanche is trying to remake herself. Maybe she’s lying about her past, but she tries to live civilly—as an English teacher who knows poetry and manners—to create a harmless illusion.
If Stanley hadn’t looked into Blanche’s past, she probably would have married Mitch, but he had to look back into her past and then drive her insane. Mitch throws her out, so there she is, trying to hang on to everything—this illusion she wants to present.
Stella becomes a more vibrant and complicated figure in the opera."Growing up at Belle Reve was full of trauma for Stella, and I think she simply ran away from that world of propriety and manners—from Blanche standing by the old relatives, staying with them until they died. The opposite of that, of course, is desire. Stella doesn’t mind getting down and dirty. “Why do you live in this place? It’s horrible,” says Blanche. The answer is, “I live here because this is who we are. You don’t know that yet?”
Roger Pines is the dramaturg of Lyric Opera of Chicago. Reprinted with permission.