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Gerald Carpenter: Opera Santa Barbara Offers André Previn’s ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

For its final production of the 2014-15 season, Opera Santa Barbara will present one of the greatest American operas: André Previn's transformation of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire.

Streetcar
Beverly O'Regan Thiele plays Blanche DuBois and Gregory Gerbrandt is Stanley Kowalski in Opera Santa Barbara's production of A Steetcar Named Desire. (Opera Santa Barbara photo)

The orchestra will be conducted by Mark Morash with stage direction by Omer Ben Seadia and starring Beverly O'Regan Thiele (Blanche DuBois), Gregory Gerbrandt (Stanley Kowalski), Micaëla Oeste (Stella Kowalski) and Casey Candebat (Harold "Mitch" Mitchell).

The production plays at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 24 and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 26 in the Granada Theatre.

I have always disliked Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning play, for reasons that aren't really relevant here, but once I heard that Previn had turned it into an opera, I slapped my forehead. "Of course!" I exclaimed. "Now I get it! It was always an opera! It just took a composer of Previn's genius to bring it out of the closet, as it were."

The story of Blanche DuBois's fragility, the disintegration of her personality in the face of her brother-in-law's brutality, and her mental collapse has become the archetypal myth of the fate of an oversensitive soul in our crass, coarse, materialistic society. I've never bought into it as a stage play, but as an opera I can thoroughly enjoy its flambouyant melodrama and the heartbreaking beauty of the arias, without having to sort out its various allegorical levels. One can have a good sniffle, sigh "Such a pity!" and go to a cafe for a snack.

I shudder to think what would have happened if virtually anybody, but Previn had been commissioned to set the Williams play to music (OK, so Michael Tilson Thomas could probably done a good job, too). Previn has conducted many operas, and he knows how they go together. He has won four Oscars for his scoring of motion pictures, most notably the film version of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. He knows Broadway, he knows Hollywood, he knows the classical music capitals of the world. I could almost say, he was born to compose this opera.

But the ultimate justification for turning A Streetcar Named Desire into an opera was written almost 50 years ago, by the art historian Kenneth Clark. "What on earth," Clark asks, "has given opera its prestige in western civilisation — a prestige that has outlasted so many different fashions and ways of thought? Why are people prepared to sit silently for three hours listening to a performance of which they do not understand a word and of which they very seldom know the plot? Why do quite small towns all over Germany and Italy still devote a large portion of their budgets to this irrational entertainment? Partly, of course, because it is a display of skill, like a football match. But chiefly, I think, because it is irrational. ‘What is too silly to be said may be sung’ — well, yes; but what is too subtle to be said, or too deeply felt, or too revealing or too mysterious — these sings can also be sung and only be sung … ."

Too silly, too subtle, too deeply felt, too revealing — that about covers every part of Williams' ouevre, wouldn't you say?

Single tickets to A Streetcar Named Desire range from $28 to $188, according to your demographic, and they can be obtained from the Granada box office at 1214 State St., by phone at 805.899.2222 or online by clicking here.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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