André Previn composed A Streetcar Named Desire in 1997, with Renée Fleming creating the role of Blanche DuBois. Last May, in connection with performances of Streetcar at Lyric Opera of Chicaco, Mr. Previn and Ms. Fleming spoke to Jack Zimmerman about composing and performing an opera based on the iconic Tennessee Williams play.
COMPOSER ANDRÉ PREVIN
You came late to composing operas. Why was that?
Because nobody asked me to write one! I’ll tell you very frankly, I had a couple of ideas given to me by the intendants of various opera companies, but they never interested me. One guy who runs a very good opera house in France offered me a commission and sent me the libretto. I read it and then I called him up and told him, “This thing is going to come out sounding unmusical and ridiculous.” I can’t write a two- or three-hour opera where everybody onstage is in a toga. I don’t know how people in togas think or how they feel. So then I had a call from San Francisco a couple of months afterwards and Lotﬁ Mansouri, who was the general director there, asked if I’d be interested in A Streetcar Named Desire. “That’s something I really want!” I told him. The play, in its own way, is already an opera—just without the singing.
How do you start writing an opera?
I just start. The world’s worst feeling is to look at a blank page, but once you get a couple of pages done, things start to go. I knew I wasn’t going to have a real overture, and I wanted to have something that would set the scene. I realized Blanche would need a couple of honest-to-God arias, but I didn’t write those ﬁrst—that’s always a bad idea. I’m rather primitive. I just go from the beginning and keep going.
Do you write at the piano?
No, I check at the piano. In other words, I write and then every once in awhile, if there’s something I doubt, I’ll play a little bit at the piano. But I don’t write at the piano.
What was the most pleasurable part of writing for Renée Fleming’s voice?
Just imagining how it would sound! I know her voice very well. I’ve done not only Streetcar with her, but also quite a lot of songs—song cycles and things, so I know what she likes and where she’s most comfortable. She can really sing absolutely anywhere. I remember one of the other people who sang Blanche. I went backstage after a rehearsal and I said, “Listen, this is just a question, but you know that B-ﬂat up on top of that one aria—can you sing that pianissimo?” And she said, “No!” I thought that was extremely smart of her, and very sweet. She said, “If you want a pianissimo high B-ﬂat, then go talk to Renée. I can’t do that.”
What was the most challenging scene to write?
I think the ending, from the rape on out. That was very hard. Once I got the idea that she should disappear upstage with just one trumpet playing, then I was okay, but I didn’t have that thought right away.
Do you set aside time every day to compose—to sit down and write something?
That’s exactly the way to put it—write something. I don’t pretend that it’s going to be great. I don’t pretend that it’s even going to be good. But I want to write something every day.
Do you have a favorite opera or a favorite opera composer?
And it is…?
It depends on what century we’re talking about. Nobody ever wrote anything as good as Mozart. And when it comes to the last 100 years, I tend to be conservative. I love Benjamin Britten’s operas. Peter Grimes is really a masterpiece. I can hear it an endless number of times. I like most everything of Richard Strauss, too. But I’m not crazy about twelve-tone operas. Twelve-tone doesn’t sing, as far as I’m concerned. When I hear Don Giovanni or Figaro, I feel like waving the white ﬂag and saying, “OK, forget it—I give up."
SOPRANO RENÉE FLEMING
What is it about Streetcar and the role of Blanche DuBois that you ﬁnd so appealing?
A lot of opera heroines are either glorious victims or virtuous saints. To be able to play somebody as complex as Blanche DuBois, even for an actress in the theater, is a real gift. We so rarely have characters like that in opera! I feel that the plays of Tennessee Williams are operas. All of them have a sort of melodrama that seems musical.
Then what does music bring to this?
What does the music bring to Otello? It enhances the story, creates drama and tension, and when there’s a moment of repose, the music ﬁlls in the blanks because music is not concrete – it’s completely abstract, so it adds another dimension. And André’s musical language is perfect for this story. He has the jazz element in his background and the late Romantic European tradition, too.
André Previn wrote the score of Streetcar with you in mind. Did you have any special requests for him?
I asked André if I could I have a set piece or two that I could perform in concert. Well, he gave me six! That was a lot. Several of them are really stunning and they work very well. I’ve been singing them ever since—“I want magic” and “Sea air” are pieces people absolutely love. There’s another one I’ve been singing lately—“Soft people.” It’s short, but it’s so beautiful.
Do you have a favorite spot in the opera?
The powerful scene at the end of Act Two, the duet with Mitch. These two people come together and decide to offer each other some comfort. And her explanation of why she’s in trouble and her confession about what happened with her young lover is incredibly powerful when it’s set to music. That’s such a wonderful scene!
What was it like working with André Previn during the rehearsal process?
The wonderful thing about André is that he’s so experienced in music and art in so many ways. He had no qualms, for instance, about cutting the orchestration so that we could be fully heard and understood – that was no problem for him. Other composers, particularly those who are new to opera, don’t want to give up any notes or any orchestra colors. André would say, “I couldn’t hear that word, so I’m cutting ﬁve instruments from the orchestration.” So pretty soon, we had a sparse and nimble orchestration that always lets the singers shine through.
Interview by Jack Zimmerman for Lyric Opera News, originally published in May 2013. Reprinted with permission.