We Want Magic

What makes opera magical in the age of movies?

Illustration by Polly Becker

OPERA today is on a roll. While symphonies around the country stumble, opera companies are flourishing, and even commissioning new works. Yet the hope that new operas will revitalize the form is, on recent evidence, misplaced. The Seattle Opera's Tristan und Isolde, which last summer brought together a dream-team cast and a state-of-the-art postmodern production, was an electrifyingly vital, if at times puzzling, rethinking of a 134-year-old war-horse. But the highly publicized new opera by André Previn and Philip Littell, which had its first performance, in San Francisco, a month after the Tristan, and has since appeared on PBS and on a DGG recording, was DOA.

Faceless in style, shapeless in its musical design, Previn's opera was such a pallid affair that it would be foolish to use it as the basis of an obituary for the entire art form, even though the gala premiere felt like a high-class funeral. On television and CDs, Streetcar was a less exquisite corpse than it had seemed on the stage. Desperate for something to praise, critics singled out the buff physique of Rodney Gilfry, who sang the role of Stanley Kowalski and took off his shirt as often as possible; this is what often passes for acting (and directing) in opera today. Any better-than-average opera composer should have been able to write music that stripped off Stanley's shirt, and his pants as well.

Previn's opera develops Blanche's character in a series of increasingly saccharine arias but never gives Stanley a chance to bare his soul rather than his torso. This asymmetry endorses Blanche's view of herself, equating magic with fading gentility, purple poetry, Chinese lampshades, and cheap perfume. We all know the lines from the Tennessee Williams play: "Maybe we are a long way from being made in God's image, but Stella -- my sister -- there has been some progress since then! Such things as art -- as poetry and music -- such kinds of new light have come into the world since then!" The libretto drops these lines to achieve one of the few effective moments in the opera, as Stella taunts Blanche with a song-without-words of sexual fulfillment. But elsewhere in the opera -- most self-indulgently in Blanche's pseudo-Straussian farewell aria -- the music seemed to speak these lines to its audience, congratulating us for sharing Blanche's sensitivity and refinement.

Of course, Blanche as spokeswoman for Western civilization is absurd and pathological -- witness her visits to the Flamingo Hotel and the easy, experienced way she comes on to the paper boy. Seemingly unable to recognize Williams's irony, Previn and Littell present Blanche as a diva, somewhere between Tosca and the Marschallin. This is a parody of a parody -- a sanitized appropriation of the homosexual opera fan's diva-goddess described by Wayne Koestenbaum in his revelatory The Queen's Throat.

Previn and Littell have it backwards. Colored lanterns and forgettable music are what make the movies magical. Operatic magic is not about illusion, let alone self-delusion. Opera lives not on dreams but on blood and guts, well-trained muscles, and heroic strength. It's much more like Stanley than like Blanche. Even before the opera's premiere, London released a recital album by Renée Fleming that featured Blanche's big aria, "I Want Magic!" This is an old and honorable promotional device, especially since more operas than you might think remain in the repertory because of a single soprano showstopper. As it happens, "I Want Magic!" is as limp as the rest of Streetcar, but its title might make a nice slogan for opera-lovers to wear on a button. We all want magic; the question is what, if anything, makes opera magical today, when our concept of dramatic enchantment is defined by the movies.

ACCORDING to some historians and most operagoers, opera died in 1924, along with Puccini, who died just one big duet short of completing Turandot, the last opera to win the unconflicted support of singers and audiences (not counting Porgy and Bess, an exception to many rules). Since then opera has been a museum art, with a repertory and a performance style frozen nearly solid in time. The nails on the operatic coffin may have been hammered in just a few years after Puccini died, with the release of The Jazz Singer: the talkies took over the glamour, star power, and technical wizardry that had given opera its aura and popular appeal.

The glittering opening-night audience arrived at Streetcar with the movie version of the play indelibly etched in their minds. It was cruel and unusual punishment to force a great singer like Renée Fleming to compete with Vivien Leigh's Blanche DuBois, or to make any male singer walk in Marlon Brando's shadow. Fleming, with her solid farm-girl body, had none of Leigh's fluttering fragility, yet as a dramatic presence she seemed insubstantial compared with her celluloid predecessor. The camera captured Leigh's minute and momentary inflections of Blanche's character -- the volatile mixture of self-knowledge and self-deception, idealism and lust, snobbery and vulgarity, that keeps her from being just a floozy. By comparison even those opera roles considered psychologically complex, such as Mélisande and the Marschallin, seem like stick figures.

Opera combines storytelling and spectacle in ways that rarely achieve the state of fusion we take for granted at the movies. Only die-hard film fans go to a bad movie to catch a great cameo performance, but opera-lovers do the equivalent all the time, knowing that a few moments of vocal bliss are more important than an evening of credible acting or striking "production values." What fewer opera-lovers understand is the way in which musical form makes these peak moments possible. The composer must provide the platform from which the singers soar. Without a sense of form, opera music turns into movie music. Previn, who has composed for film, does not seem to understand the difference. His decision to accept a libretto that closely followed the play, instead of creating a series of arias, duets, and ensembles (apparently, the Williams estate insisted that the libretto stay close to the play), would probably have relegated the music to the background even if it had achieved a more distinctive style.

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