January 27, 2013

Echoes of Scarlett O'Hara, Bach and Ward Swingle in Previn's "Streetcar"

Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind and Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire are perhaps the two most iconic American works of literature about the South and the tradition of the southern belle.

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara
Though Scarlett O'Hara and Blanche DuBois are completely different characters on different journeys, both women share some experiences. And no, I'm not referring to the fact that they were both portrayed by Vivien Leigh in filmed versions! Beyond the casting coincidence, each endures the horror of witnessing, first-hand and close up, the agonizing death of family members. Scarlett's mother has already passed by the time she arrives at Tara, but her father's slow march to dementia and death is a stressful ordeal. As for Blanche, we learn in her initial conversation with her sister Stella that she was traumatized by the suffering and death of her parents, not to mention the earlier suicide of her husband Alan Grey.

In both cases, the authors use death as part of a larger metaphor representing the disappearance of the gracious, idyllic, aristocratic culture of the Old South; what Rhett Butler sardonically describes as "moonlight and magnolias". Following her trauma, Scarlett must learn to deal with the Brave New World of southern reconstruction, whereas Blanche finds herself in conflict with the highly unaristocratic Stanley Kowalski.

Ironically, the scene in Streetcar that most vividly parallels an event in GWTW does not directly involve Blanche, but rather Stella. This is the episode in which Stanley, having struck his wife and sent her flying to the sanctuary of their upstairs neighbor's apartment, remorsefully begs her to return. Yep, this is the moment in which Marlon Brando uttered the first of his classic cinematic lines by screaming "STELLA!" at the top of his lungs. (The other lines: "I coulda been a contender" and "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse.:) 
Kim Hunter, portrayer of Stella

Stella, driven by sexuality - her strong physical need for Stanley - responds with a slow descent down the stairs and into his arms, whereupon he hauls her into their bedroom for what we understand will be a night of particularly intense, not to say violent, lovemaking. As the action of the drama resumes the next morning, Stella is relaxed and contented, lolling on the bed, defending her brutish husband in the grand tradition of abused wives since the beginning of time.

Williams, I believe, intends this scene to be an homage or reference to the scene in Gone With the Wind in which Rhett (thinking now of the film) gathers Scarlett in his arms and hauls her upstairs to ravage her sexually. The next scene depicts Scarlett in a similar affect of fulfilled womanhood, happily singing to herself in bed.

Perhaps to bring home the relationship between these two scenes, librettist Philip Littell has Stella singing a languidly sensual tune to herself during her "morning after" moment. Here AndrĂ© Previn makes a considered choice in musical treatment. Rather than a fairly prim little ballad such as Scarlett's (during which, incidentally, Vivien Leigh momentarily loses control of her Southern accent and has a purely British moment), Stella's music is more overtly sexual in a "cat that licked the cream" manner.

Anyone who has paid attention to the musical score to this point in Act I shouldn't be surprised at the jazzy nature of Stella's tune. As we shall explore in a future blog post, Previn's use of jazz in Streetcar is not generic to the work, nor particularly an evocation of the New Orleans setting. Rather, he employs a jazz idiom sparingly, and always for one purpose: sex. In this opera, the introduction of the language of jazz is code for sexual dissolution and lust. That is confirmed by the sudden blue-note solo for alto sax at the moment Stella responds to Stanley's shouting by appearing at the top of the staircase.

Stella's vocalise, however, is not colored by the sleazy overtones of a wailing saxophone. For inspiration, Previn turned to Ward Swingle's jazzed-up vocal arrangements of the music of J. S. Bach. If you've never heard his ensemble The Swingle Singeers, listen to this arrangement of the slow movement from Bach's Concerto in F Major for harpsichord and marvel at the transformation rendered by some tasteful scat-singing and percussion. Dig it, hep-cats; it's the coolest!

Previn retains the "walking bass" accompaniment, using conventional upright bass in place of Swingle's vocalized equivalent. Stella's melody has similar pace and contour, with carefree squences of floating swirls, dips and rises in the melodic line.

Perhaps it is really Stella who most resembles Scarlett O'Hara; like Margaret Mitchell's plucky heroine, Stella has little nostalgia for the "Old South" represented by her Mississippi upbringing. She has "moved on" and is coping as best she can married to a working-class husband and living a working-class life in a modern, working-class neighborhood. Blanche, clinging to the mannerisms of the belle she used to be, is clinging to a way of life that no longer exists and has been tainted by the tragedies encountered along her path of self-destructive doom.

My book THE OPERA ZOO: SINGERS, COMPOSERS AND OTHER PRIMATES is available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online or by phone from customer service: 1-800-344-9034, ext. 3020. Also available at www.amazon.com

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