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AS AN OPERA

“A STREET CAR NAMED DESIRE”

FAILS MUSICALLY

By Iride Aparicio

Photos courtesy: Opera San José 

L-R ARIANA STRAHL, MATTHEW HANSCOM and CABIRIA JACOBSEN
L-R ARIANA STRAHL, MATTHEW HANSCOM and CABIRIA JACOBSEN
As Blanche Dubois, Stanley Kowalsky and  Stella Kowalsky

SAN JOSË, CA – Harvard Dictionary of Music defines “Opera” as a drama, either tragic or comic, sung throughout, with appropriate scenery and acting, to the accompaniment of an orchestra.”  An Opera is also a highly complex form of entertainment  because it includes  many arts: Drama, Music (instrumental and vocal)  Singing, acting, Dancing, Scenery and lighting to name a few. Because of this, to write an opera is a difficult task.

Most Operas are based on dramatic works, (plays) where the action is told to the audience in dialogues. Because plays are verbose, to use them in an opera they must be cut and then versified (converted to metrical forms) the versification of a dramatic play  is called the Opera's Libretto.

The reason for the versification of the prose in a play, is that the Opera’s composer is going to use the verses to write the songs (Arias) to be sung by the singers, and in an opera, each of these melodies must adhere to  an stipulated musical form. The versified version of the drama, will also help the musical composer to determine the type of music he or she needs to write for this scene, the Musical Key of the melody (which will depend on the singer's voice range) and how the melody is going to be orchestrated. Usually, not always. the romantic arias (as the operatic lovr songs are called) are played by the violins and violas.

An unwritten law, followed by Opera composers, is also that the plots of their operas be based on a great love. The protagonists on most operas are two lovers who love each other so much that are willing to die together, or die for each other. Operas are tragic, but they are also romantic.

Knowing the Centuries' old Opera’s traditions, one could do nothing but wonder why Librettist PHILIP LITELL who has previously provided the words for other operas, oratorios cantatas, song cycles and symphonies for many American composers and who himself wrote the libretto for THE DANGEROUS LIAISONS, a church opera and other works, selected the play  “A STREET CAR NAMED DESIRE” for and Opera. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning (1947) playwright TENNESEE WILLIAMS’s the drama,“A STREET CAR NAMED DESIRE,” may easily be described as a story based on hatred.

The protagonist of the play is Blance Dubois, a Southern bell of Aristocratic background who after losing her family and Belle Reve, their property in Auriol Mississippi,  travels to New Orleans and arrives in the street car name Desire, to a  tenement two room apartment in the old part of twon, where her sister Stella, and her Polish husband Stanley Kowalski live.

Soprano ARIANA STRAHAL as Blanche DuBois
 Soprano ARIANA STRAHAL as Blanche DuBois


Soon, she discovers that Stanley, her brother-in-law, is a loud vulgar man, specially when he drinks. who plays poker in his house one night a week with his friends, and verbally and physically abuses Stella.

Because of her aristocratic behavior, Stanley dislikes Blanche from the beginning and after overhearing Blanche questioning Stella about her living conditions with “ The subhuman animal” (as she calls Stanley) so far removed from their aristocratic upbringing, and urging her sister to leave him, he starts hating Blanche and planning his revenge.

Little by little begins digging into Blanche’s past in Auriol, discovering that she was a promiscuous woman who was fired from her teacher’s job for having sexual relations with a minor and that she has a reputation for mental instability. Stanley uses these information to destroy Blanche relation with Mitch, one of his friends, who was thinking of marrying her.

When Mitch leaves Blanche, she goes into delusions. Dressed up in a tattered old gown she “pretends” he is going out with an admirer. On the night Stanley returns from the hospital where Stella is having a baby, He gets into an argument, with Blanche and then into a physical struggle that ends with her rape.


Baritone MATTHEW HANSCOM (Center) as Stanley Kowlaski

                Baritone MATTHEW HANSCOM (Center) as Stanley Kowalski

WILLIANS' highly dramatic play gives a musical composer  plenty  opportunities to write powerful music: A lullaby for Estella to sing, a choir to be interpreted by Stanley and his friends, a love duet for Blanche and Mitch, a musical overture using an approximations of Jazz sounds because the action of the Opera is in New Orleans. None of this happens in "A STREET CAR NAMED DESIRE." 

What conductor, composer and pianist ANDRÉ PREVIN who has received even the Austrian and German Cross of Merit and the Glenn Gould Prize for his outstanding musical accomplishments, wrote for his Opera, is a pleasant, but forgettable, shapeless music score that matches the dialogue and alouds the singers to sing it, but where all the music sounds alike. These un-melodic sounds with different harmonizations,  linger on and on for three hours.

We believe that only the mastery of the singers and their musical training made it possible for them to be able sing this score. Because none of the "arias" is not melodic, remembering their sounds, must have been a very difficult task for them. And, here we can add that on press opening night, all the singers were marvelous.

As Blance, STRAHL gave us a truly realistic version of her character. We saw her acting coy, yet openly seductive with XAVIER PRADO (who played the role as young collector). We saw her acting each one of her many facets with a lot of feeling, singing in tune in a marvelous timbre of voice. At the end, after her horrible ordeal, STRAHL even brought tears to our eyes as she goes trustfully to the mental ward with the doctor after telling him” Whoever you are, I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers.”

Another wonderful performance on that night was the one of  STACEY TAPPAN as Stella.  So realistic, that she even managed to made the audience feel her love for Stanley (as she shows Blanche his photo). She also was capable to demonstrate her passion for her husband(when they are together) and  In her demeanor, her aristocratic upbringing, and her compassion of her sister Blanche. She mastered her role on that night.

Soprano STACEY TAPPAN in her role as  Stella Kowalski
                      Soprano STACEY TAPPAN in her role as  Stella Kowalski

Baritone MATTHEW HANSCOM had the physique and the voice for the role of Stanley Kowalski, but he over-acted his character at times.  He was playing a  role in which only getting the music and singing it correctly must have been difficult, so while nothing was wrong in the production of his tone, that was fluent and powerful, he needed to interpret his role more realistically and less exaggerated. His problem of exaggerating his acting was also shared by Tenor Kirk Dogherty in the role of Mitch. Written in English and well vocalized by the singers, the subtitles were not needed.

Tenor KIRK DOUGHERTY as Mitch and ARIANA STRAHL as Blanche
    Tenor KIRK DOUGHERTY as Mitch and ARIANA STRAHL as Blanche

Stage Director BRAD DALTON directed the actors’ which included: STEVE SILAS ELASH  as a doctor, CABIRIA JACOBSEN as Eunice, and TERESSA FOSS as a nurse, actions well, but his Set Design consisting on a bed  a table and several chairs needed improvement. It could not give the action a believable location. With the bed moving from stage left to stage right we the audience could not even picture, in our minds, the Kowalski’s apartment.

The new production continues Opera San José desire to present to the audience a contemporary repertoire of Operas  Sadly A STREET CAR NAMED DESIRE, that premier in S.F. on September 19, 1998,  was not its best work. Placing the orchestra backstage, was not a good idea. Conductor MING LUKE managed to conduct his orchestra well and delivered the music, but even in the front seats, the music sounded far away.

While the singing and acting of the opera was superb. The response to A STREET CAR NAMED DESIRE from the audience, was uniform.  The patrons enjoyed the production, but many said they would have liked to have at least one song (aria) in the three hours that they could remember and go home humming it.

A STREET CAR NAMED DESIRE will play on April 24th at 3PM, and on April 29  and May 1st at 8 P. M. at the California Theatre 345 S. First St. in San Jose. For information and Tickets: call 408-437-4450 of order them online at  www.operasj.org.