Sexy Beast

Austin Lyric Opera rides a bold new 'Streetcar' to the forefront of American opera

Suzanne Ramo and Teddy Tahu Rhodes
Suzanne Ramo and Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

Get Brad Dalton talking about the operatic version of A Streetcar Named Desire and pretty soon you're listening to an aria. Oh, this West Coast-based stage director doesn't literally sing at you, but when he's describing Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of sex and insanity in New Orleans as adapted by composer Andre Previn, and especially the groundbreaking new version that he is staging for Austin Lyric Opera, he gets so animated and passionate and forceful that his speech takes on the heightened emotional quality of an operatic character expressing himself.

"I love it. I love the score," he says, his voice almost musical with fervor. "I think it has the kind of epic, mythic, emotional scope that Tennessee Williams wanted it to have. The music embodies the subtext and feeling of every scene. Previn just guides you through it emotionally in a way that I think is so appropriate. Like the aria where Blanche talks about her death: Previn has taken it and made it into the most amazingly moving experience. It's the most beautiful music, just this feverish dream, a fantasy of this beautiful thing that will happen, which we know is never going to happen because we know the doctor is going to walk in and take her away at any moment. It's just the most amazing thing."

Solely on the strength of his enthusiasm for the material, Dalton would make a choice candidate for the job of getting Austin's Streetcar running. But it was more than zeal that led ALO General Director Joseph McClain to hire him for what will be only the fourth production of the opera since its 1998 premiere. Dalton is intimately familiar with the work, about as familiar as any artist around, having served as first assistant director for that San Francisco Opera original production and director of a San Diego Opera production two years later. World-class designer Michael Yeargen, who created the set and costumes for the premiere and was hired to design ALO's version, recommended Dalton for the job based on his experience and his vision of a Streetcar that would take the opera in a totally new and different direction.

"New and different" ... well, that's music to Joe McClain's ears. ALO's general director has consistently pushed his company toward the new and the different, even though a young opera company in a midsized city might have easily coasted on the comfortable romantic favorites in the operatic canon for a few decades. That's why we've gotten a post-apocalyptic Tannhauser, an environmentally staged Carmen in City Coliseum, and 20th-century American works such as The Ballad of Baby Doe and Candide, and, fresh from their debuts, Cold Sassy Tree and A Streetcar Named Desire. McClain saw the original production and could have duplicated its cinematic naturalism, its two rooms and French Quarter architecture. But that would have been the easy way and, to his credit, that isn't McClain's way. He wanted to try something else, as Yeargen did and as Dalton did.

So here they are, imagining a Streetcar radically different from its predecessors, a Streetcar of the mind that captures Blanche's mental instability in its sharply angled walls and raked, reflective floors, its stark, unfurnished interiors and saturated colors and ghostly figures brushing by her. It's a bold experiment, but then, one of ALO's strengths is its willingness to abandon the safe and predictable, to take risks, to chance something big and bold. Being at the head of the operatic pack on this particular work -- in fact, leading the pack in attempting to rethink Streetcar as an opera -- ALO will have a lot of eyes on it this week, and that means the company will have a remarkable opportunity to show the world the stuff it's made of.

"I want magic," Blanche tells us, and we echo her, at least whenever we set foot in a theatre. That's a place we seek enchantment, something beyond the ordinary, some transformation, some wonder. As he prepared for the January 18 opening of A Streetcar Named Desire on the Bass Concert Hall stage, Brad Dalton shared some insights into feelings about the opera, his approach to it, and the theatre's magic.

Austin Chronicle: What about the opera of Streetcar interested you?

Brad Dalton: I love Tennessee Williams, first of all. I happen, by weird coincidence, to have the same birthday as him, and like many Americans, I love his work, and I'm really moved by his life, the fact that he was dancing on the edge of insanity all the time. And his writing is so rich and full. It's always painful territory, his plays, but they're also very funny, and they're just so mythic. So I've always loved Streetcar.

Director Brad Dalton
Director Brad Dalton (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

And Andre Previn, I've admired him since I was a kid. I always had records of his. And I've loved film scores ever since I was a kid. It must be some birth defect. I have hundreds of film scores. So does Peter Bay, who's conducting it. We're both huge film score buffs, so to have the guy who won four Academy Awards for film scores and to know that we're dealing with something that has the sweep of a film score is really exciting.

AC: Do you recall the first time you heard the score?

BD: I do, actually. I heard some tapes of orchestra readings well before we started rehearsing, just so Previn could hear his music. I was impressed by the scope of the music. It has the breadth of a movie music score. And I loved the jazz elements. I had a little bit of a problem with the first 20-25 minutes; to my ear it was strident. And this is the experience of Peter Bay. The first three times he heard it, he just didn't get it. It takes a little bit of time [to get]. But then, all the operas do that. Like Peter Grimes [by Benjamin Britten], you hear that and go, "That sounds kind of spare and stark, and I don't really get it." But after awhile it just gets under your skin. All the great pieces that I know have been that way.

I've come to understand that in the piece his writing gets better. Each scene gets better than the one before it. The second act is much more easygoing and has some beautiful tunes and some funny stuff in it. The last act is just intense, very well-written. I think he learned as he went along.

AC: So you got the chance to direct this production. What did Joe McClain say? "Go crazy with it"?

BD: He just said, "Blow it up." I think Austin is so lucky to have Joe McClain, a man who is able to see a work like Streetcar, which was done in a certain way -- very much like a film, just two realistic rooms -- and know that he wanted to do something different. "Let's blow this up. Let's stretch it out." And it's so appropriate, because that's what Williams wanted. In his writings, he says, "I eschew the theatre of every single knife and fork at every place and every glass with every ice cube." The speech that Tom gives at the beginning of The Glass Menagerie. "This is not a realistic play. Things happens to music." What's a better launching ground for an opera than that? When Williams writes, he's talking about color all the time. What we see visually should be as emotionally abstract and largely painted as what's going on underneath. For Joe to be as adventurous as he is, that's just great.

And somehow I knew instantly what we were going to do. I had these visions in my head all throughout the other production, certain moments I would see something, like someone standing with a light shining at them with a shadow. More space, more openness, more depth. I just knew that this show should be a feverish dream, a feverish landscape in the mind of a woman who's tortured by so much. The present is hard for her, the past is terrible, and she worries about the future.

So I thought, visions of haunted things from the past should appear. A door can open, and either a realistic character can walk out or an unrealistic character can walk out. But they're able to pop in and out, walk through, not even see each other but just brush by each other, their presence is there. I just knew that we needed to have that, to create a larger canvas, more color, more boldness across the stage. When Blanche is talking about her traumas, taking care of all her dead relatives, rather than just standing next to the table and talking to Stella, I wanted to see something that represents the emotions of that, from one corner of my vision to the other.

I think that's what we go to the theatre for, and when you're on a big stage, you have an opportunity to really do that. I don't want to do anything for the neck up. That's like balancing the checkbook. I do that all day long. Everybody does that all day long. When I go into the theatre, I want something to grip me, I want to be taken away. I want to see things in my head for a week after that, something that's stimulating me. And abstraction ... to me, that's what it's all about.

Sexy Beast
Photo By Bret Brookshire

It's like church. The whole idea originally was, "Let's sit in a room and think about the fact that we don't have the answers to any of these questions. We're terrified. Nobody knows why we're here or where we come from. Let's all sit here and meditate on that and draw comfort, realize that our lives are short and all these wonderful spiritual ideas that we've gotten away from." To me, the theatre is like that, too. We go into this place and have this visionary, intense experience that hits us in the gut, that sweeps us away.

I knew that we needed to do something big.

AC: So what has remaking the piece been like?

BD: I've had a ball rethinking the piece. But I had the other one in my head so much that to rethink it was a challenge. Also because even though Williams eschews the theatre of being realistic, it has, as Micheal Yeargen says, one of the most limiting ground plans of any play there is. You think you're going to open it up, make it abstract, and then the characters are going "Oh, get the telephone." "There are cold cuts in the refrigerator." "Get me a Coke." "Get me some whiskey." "Oh, look at the kitchen table." "Oh, I'm going to the bathroom." How can we make this abstract when everything that's realistic has to be there? That was the challenge, and for a long time it was a hard nut to crack.

We had lots of ideas -- abstract cross-sections and things with different levels and abstract neon -- but we came up with something really simple. In some scenes there is nothing onstage at all. It's completely blank. And we just do it without anything there. It mirrors the fact that Blanche has gone completely off the edge. She's going crazy. She's lost it. There's nothing there.

In the rape scene, there's nothing onstage at all. They use the walls and the depth of the space. There's this one line where Blanche says to Stanley, "Does that mean we're to be alone in here?" and he says, "Yeah, just you and me." And that's what you see: Just two people in the arena for the final combat. She runs to the end of this tiny little point where the set juts out and hangs over the orchestra pit. People are always trapped out there, because when you go out there, there's no place to go. When people are on the edge, I send them there.

AC: Has the long shadow of the Streetcar film caused you any problems?

BD: That's one thing that I worry about a little, to tell you the truth, because people come up and immediately what comes out of their mouth is "Vivien Leigh. Marlon Brando. Vivien Leigh. Marlon Brando." And these people are not Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando. No one is Vivien Leigh or Marlon Brando. I mean, they were who they were. They were amazing. Kim Hunter and Karl Malden. They were spectacular. [The film] is an amazing thing. But this is different. And that's what is exciting. Let's see other people do it because you get something different every time.

The thing that is so interesting, we have two Stanleys, two Stellas, and two Blanches, and they do the same blocking, but they get up there and, just by the fact of who they are, it is so different. Our two Blanches are very different. One is very delicate and quick, and she's always flitting about, and one is much more languid, and she really uses the sound of her voice. It's worth seeing both casts because each of them brings something different to the roles. They do exactly the same things physically, but the way they do it gives it such a different feeling and dynamic.

AC: Has the fact that this isn't a naturalistic production helped them get out from under the shadow of the film?

BD: I think it has. They know immediately that they're not doing anything which is like the film. I told them, "Look, just forget about all those people who did it before. Every role is open to interpretation, and everyone has different experiences they bring to a role. You are in this room right now. You are Stanley. You, right now. You don't have to do anything like Marlon Brando. If we think about anything anyone else did, it will freeze us up. So play this scene, and if you think about it and you're really involved in every aspect and you're doing what is necessary, you're Stanley. You're Stella. That's who you are." Once they got into the situations and understood their background and their point of view emotionally and what they wanted in the scene and what the action of the scene was, they just got swept away. The scenes are so wonderfully written, that if you meet the role halfway, you're just swept away by it.

This is a great, great piece for people to cross over into opera with. If people can get themselves there, I think they're going to be swept away by it. It's just so immediate. They're speaking English, and they're sitting around sweating in New Orleans, and the underlying thing is sex. What's more fun than that? end story

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Austin Lyric Opera, A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams, Andre Previn, Brad Dalton, Joseph McClain, San Francisco Opera, San Diego Opera, Michael Yeargen

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