July 27--Union Avenue Opera built its brand by presenting small-scale productions of beloved grand operas in their original languages. Next weekend the company will take its second step in a different direction, with AndrÉ Previn's 1997 score "A Streetcar Named Desire."
UAO's first contemporary production was Jake Heggie's "Dead Man Walking," in 2011. It was a major success that made "Streetcar" a possibility.
The war-horses are closest to founder and artistic director Scott Schoonover's heart, but if opera companies are to avoid museum status, it's imperative that they offer works from our own time.
"I think it's important that every now and then UAO program contemporary works both for our legitimacy as a company and to stretch our capabilities to include something a little out of our comfort zone," he said.
This opera is particularly appropriate for UAO, Schoonover said, because the source material is well known, the story is intimate and because of "the obvious St. Louis connection to Tennessee Williams and the fact that he went to high school right across the street (from Union Avenue Christian Church) at Soldan."
The conductor and director of "Streetcar" are enthusiastic advocates. Kostis Protopapas, an occasional guest on the podium since 2007, thinks that, in some ways, the opera is an improvement on Williams' original play.
With a libretto by Philip Littell, "You really could say that it's the play set to music," Protopapas said. "Dramatically, it works very well. It makes the effect the way the play makes it," showing Blanche's psychological journey of loneliness and alienation. "My approach is to stay close to the text, to see where it takes us, and choose tempos and inflections based on that."
"Streetcar" has arias and set pieces, including Blanche's "I want magic," and other effective moments. Protopapas called it "a very active score, very eclectic," with elements reminiscent of Copland and Britten, Shostakovich and Schoenberg.
"There's a New Orleans atmosphere, with jazz and folkloric elements," Protopapas said. "It has American roots that you can feel and hear. I think that's going to be very attractive for a lot of people who feel a disconnect from European opera."
Director Christopher Limber was originally trained as an actor and writes, composes and teaches as well. A member of the choir at Union Avenue Christian Church, he and Schoonover have been planning a collaboration for a while.
Limber called the opera "a beautiful poetic distillation of Tennessee Williams' play" and noted that the original stage directions contains numerous musical cues. "I think the music accomplishes a lot of what (Williams) wanted in his play."
When the play opened on Broadway in 1957, critic John Chapman of the New York Daily News wrote that it had "the tragic overtones of grand opera, and is, indeed, the story of a New Orleans Camille -- a wistful little trollop who shuns the reality of what she is and takes gallant and desperate refuge in a magical life she has invented for herself."
"It was really a step up from the usual Broadway fare," Limber said. "It's really expressive. (Williams) created a play about normal Americans, people with ordinary lives, who had extraordinary emotional lives. It's wonderful to work with the poetry of the texts, the emotions of the characters, just like you'd do in a play, and have the music as well."
The cast, they agree, is a strong one, fine singers with equally strong acting chops. "It's a young cast," observed Protopapas, "but with quite a bit of experience." Lacy Sauter, a former young artist at Florida Grand Opera and Santa Fe Opera, is Blanche; Venezuelan baritone Bernardo Bermudez is Stanley. Katherine Giaquinto sings Stella, while tenor Anthony Webb was the terrific Pirelli in OTSL's 2012 "Sweeney Todd."
Limber thinks it's a good direction for UAO. "It works very well in this space. (Performers) can sing to the side, and even completely upstage, and you can still hear them well, with good diction. It gives you more flexibility in terms of staging, but it also gives you a real emotional intimacy with the audience that's great for pieces like this."
Protopapas thinks "Streetcar" will appeal to first-time operagoers and others who aren't quite sure about lyric theater. "Union Avenue draws a lot of its audience from people who don't normally go to the opera. I think the perception of opera will change as people see more contemporary pieces, more pieces in their own language," he said.
"Opera is not about powdered wigs and horned helmets; it can be about the American experience, with American stories that have their roots here and resonate all over the world. Opera is now indigenous to America. It's not imported thing anymore. The more American operas we do, the more message will come through."
Sarah Bryan Miller is the Post-Dispatch's classical music critic. Follow Bryan on the Culture Club blog, and on Twitter at @SBMillerMusic.
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