Tennessee Williams’s fallen Southern belle, Blanche DuBois, is one of the most iconic characters of American theater. First immortalized on Broadway by actress Jessica Tandy in 1947, and later onscreen by Vivien Leigh, A Streetcar Named Desire’s tragic heroine didn’t find her way into music until 1998. It was legendary composer, conductor and pianist André Previn who had the chops and confidence to transport Blanche to the opera. His inspiration? Soprano superstar Renée Fleming, whose graceful phrasing and dusky timbre proved the perfect vehicle for an aging debutante teetering on the twilight edge of reality. Fleming sang the role in San Francisco Opera’s 1998 world premiere and reprises the role at Civic Opera House in its debut for the Lyric, where she also serves as creative consultant.
“Renée’s voice conveys Blanche’s seeping sexuality beautifully,” remarks conductor Evan Rogister when we chat over orange spice tea in a River North café. “Blanche is uncomfortable with her sexual energy, but just can’t rein it in. The role is perfectly tailored for Renée, as she has an incredible ability to access a high register and meet the rhythmic demands of the music.” Rogister, a familiar face at Lyric for the last couple of months, where he’s juggling conducting duties for both Rigoletto and Streetcar, adds that Previn’s luscious, jazzy score brings out a dimension to the characters that allows the opera to stand strong next to the play and movie. “Music always says what is inexpressible in words,” the North Carolina native points out, “and this opera has its own feel to it, since it unfolds on a musical landscape. Previn really captures our American idiom, our sound world.”
Rogister’s former Juilliard classmate, the similarly warm and easygoing soprano Susanna Phillips is well matched for the role of Blanche’s beloved sister, Stella, who is hitched to hard-drinking brute Stanley (played by baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes). A contemporary Southern belle who grew up in the small city of Huntsville, Alabama, Phillips made her formal outing as a debutante at age 18. “I wore a full white dress and gloves, it was so much fun!” she reminisces over the phone from Baltimore, where she’s on engagement with the Baltimore Symphony. “We took manners classes, learned how to write thank you notes, and how to set a table,” she remembers. “It’s lovely to have manners and propriety where I come from. Those traditions are still held in very high esteem.”
The former Lincoln Park resident who, like Rogister, currently lives “out of a suitcase” says that singing Stella requires deep understanding of her multifaceted character. “Stella has to have strength,” explains Phillips in her subtle Southern lilt. “She left home and married Stanley against her family’s wishes. She has to have a certain amount of grit as well as debutante flair.” Rogister agrees that Streetcar demands equally vibrant actors and singers. “The cast has to do a lot of soul-searching to bring these pretty depraved characters to life,” he says, taking a sip of tea. “It’s going to be quite a bonding process!”
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s A Streetcar Named Desire runs Tuesday 26, Friday 29, Wednesday 3 and April 6 at Civic Opera House.