The real Renee and the fictional Blanche are, in their very different ways, emblems of American culture at a particular time in history. Each has earned a legitimate and lasting claim on a corner of the American imagination.
Fleming is today's reigning American opera diva, an uncommonly versatile soprano who's the toast of audiences on several continents. As Lyric's first creative consultant, whose five-year contract began in 2010, she is the company's best advocate and most bankable asset.
DuBois is Williams' faux-genteel Southern belle with a seamy past, around whom the playwright built his 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “A Streetcar Named Desire,” a classic of the American theater reborn as an opera more than a half-century after the play burst onto the world stage.
Fleming created the role of Blanche for San Francisco Opera's world premiere production in 1998 of the opera based on “Streetcar Named Desire,” for which Andre Previn wrote the music and Philip Littell the libretto.
The singer will revisit the fragile, doomed Blanche when she heads the cast of the staged concert performances of “Streetcar” Lyric Opera is presenting, beginning March 26 at the Civic Opera House. All four performances are sold out to subscribers.
Co-starring with Fleming will be soprano Susanna Phillips as Stella, Blanche's pregnant sister; baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes in his Lyric debut as Stanley Kowalski, Stella's brutish husband; and tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, recreating his original role of Mitch, Blanche's mama's-boy suitor.
Previn wrote Blanche's dreamy musings with Fleming's velvety voice in mind. The singer calls the role “a great fit” for her at this stage of her career (she's 54), and says she's “thrilled” to be reviving Previn's opera for performances this month in New York and Chicago.
“Andre really put his heart and soul into this piece,” Fleming says. “I think the play is in many ways enhanced by the music — there's a lot of terrific, original material in the score. It's the kind of piece that once you know it well, and see the craft in it, you can really appreciate it.”
What's unusual about these performances of “Streetcar” is that, although the performers will appear in costume, they will be surrounded not by sets but by orchestra musicians. That's right — the Lyric Opera Orchestra and conductor Evan Rogister will be in full view of the audience, with the singers moving in and around the players.
Brad Dalton's staging will be essentially the same “black box” version that was presented in London in 2003 and revived for a single concert performance last week at Carnegie Hall in New York. Fleming sang Blanche in both productions. Expressionistic lighting and ghostly supernumeraries will underscore what the director calls “the hallucinatory sensibility of the piece.”
According to Fleming, the absence of decor makes the opera more challenging to perform, “because everything that happens onstage will have to be done with our bodies and voices, making it more physically taxing” than singing a full-scale production. As for the audience, they are unlikely to notice much of a change, she adds, since most regular stagings of “Streetcar” use only minimal scenery anyway.
When most people think of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the image that springs most readily to mind is that of Marlon Brando, exuding animal sexuality in his torn T-shirt, yelling “Stell-lahhh!,” in Elia Kazan's classic 1951 film version of the play, which starred Vivien Leigh as Blanche.
Previn and Littell have kept Stanley's famous line spoken rather than sung. “There was no way to have ‘Stell-lahhh!' sung without getting a laugh,” the composer said at the time of the San Francisco premiere.
That said, the differences between “Streetcar” the play and “Streetcar” the opera are such that audience members would be wise to approach the opera on its own terms — judging for themselves how the music, singing and stage direction portray the tragic, self-deluding Blanche, whose pretensions slowly unravel as she becomes more and more unhinged.
Previn, now 83, took up composing and conducting classical music after paying his dues as a jazz pianist and Hollywood film composer. That experience served him well when it came to evoking the regional flavor of New Orleans in his first opera.
“There are definite jazz elements in the piece,” Fleming says. “Andre didn't set out to write them, but they are there.”
Having come from a jazz background herself, the soprano did not have to stretch her technique very far to bring those elements into her singing. She sang jazz and pop music throughout college and continued performing with a jazz trio for several years afterward. Fleming still moonlights as a jazz and pop singer whenever she can squeeze such gigs into her busy opera and concert schedule.
Given that it's been 10 years since she last performed “Streetcar” anywhere, she decided to devote the better part of February to restudying the role to get deeper under Blanche's skin. She even revisited the interpretations of several famous screen and stage actresses, including Liv Ullmann, Frances McDormand, Jessica Lange and Cate Blanchett, Fleming says.
“Blanche is this juxtaposition of prim and proper Southern manners with, on the other side, an alcoholic and promiscuous persona,” the soprano says. “Blanche has suffered quite a bit of tragedy in her life, beginning with her husband's suicide when she was young. I am finding out how sympathetic she is, for all her strong narcissistic streak.