February 3, 2013

Blanche DuBois: a mind, a life and a vocal style spinning out of control

So, what's the function - the Job #1 - of music in an opera, anyway? Is it just to provide the audience with "ear candy", or beautiful tunes to hum on our way home from the opera house? Why sing the words, anyway?

There are many, many self-proclaimed opera lovers who really (if they are honest) only value music for its ear-candy qualities. I'll never forget the time a student in one of my opera appreciation classes, an educated, dignified man of mature years, came ambling up after class and placidly explained to me, "Glenn, you're a fine instructor, but you know what? When I go to the opera, I don't read the super-titles or the plot synopsis or any of that. I just lean back in my seat, close my eyes, and I soak up the beautiful voices and the lovely melodies."

He was probably puzzled by the expression on my face after this speech...

Granted, I get what he was trying to express: it's true and perfectly valid that the visceral experience of hearing the sound of a trained operatic voice is in fact one of the portals of entry into the world of opera and its pleasures. One of them, mind.

What I had clearly failed to impress upon that gentleman is that the best operatic music has a literary function over and above its value as pure, abstract music. It's the job of the opera composer to use music as a story-telling tool: to define and reveal character, establish point of view, and reflect a host of narrative literary devices. Symbolism, foreshadowing, --in short, everything you remember from high school literature classes. That's when operatic music takes on deeper levels of interest and intrigue.

With all this in  mind, let's consider the nature of the vocal writing for Blanche DuBois in AndrĂ© Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire. While Previn does assign Blanche some arias rich in soaring, , tonal, suavely melodic ear-candy such as "I want magic!" and "I can smell the sea air", a large portion of the role consists of dialogue passages that my eye-closing, leaning-back student would find tough listening. Many vocal lines appear to be instrumentally conceived, and are highly chromatic to boot.

We first meet Blanche - musically, anyway - before we ever see her. The orchestral introduction to Act 1, scene 1 contains a vivid portrait of her in twenty-two bars. Bluesy chords to represent her sexual dissolution are followed by aimless, wandering woodwind solos depicting Blanche's odyssey from her family home of Belle Reve to a disreputable hotel and finally to her sister's home in New Orleans. And then, at bar 14, comes a fragmented solo line for trumpet:

This, I believe, is Blanche herself. Note the contour - the shape - of the trumpet line. It gradually ascends the treble staff in erratic zig-zag fashion, ending with a sort of brassy scream above the staff. It sounds neurotic and anxious; it seems to spin crazily out of control. It puts me in mind of a nervous potter losing control of the clay on his potter's wheel, watching in dismay as it splatters crazily into pieces.

Voila Blanche:  a woman whose battle to retain control of her life and her mental stability is also spinning out of control. A survey of the vocal lines given to Blanche throughout the opera reveals continual use of this contour, but only for particular types of dialogue: lines in which we observe Blanche exhibiting neurotic awareness of her precarious mental and emotional state.

Appropriately, the zig-zag contour informs Blanche's very first line, the first vocal line in the opera. This is surely a moment of neurotic insecurity for Blanche, having arrived alone by train in a large, unfamiliar city, making her way via public transportation and confusing directions that have left her in a neighborhood unlike the high-toned area she expected.

After Stella arrives, she and Blanche have a lengthy scene of dialogue in which Blanche tells lie after lie, bravely  presenting the facade of respectability to which she is clinging. But here and there, her angst and mental anguish crack through that facade in vocal lines betraying how close to the edge of sanity she is. When Stella asks where Blanche plans to stay while in town, her answer shows us her dread of being alone; again, via the contour of the line:

Soon after, Blanche is put on the defensive when Stella reacts badly to the news that the family plantation has been lost. She launches into a tirade about all the adversity she endured in Mississippi, including the horrific memory of witnessing the slow deaths of family members:

In case you're wondering, the zig-zag contour is present only in Blanche's music. Stella, Stanley, Mitch and the minor roles may feature instrumentally-conceived lines at times, and there is certainly a great deal of chromaticism for all involved; but only Blanche sings in lines that careen crazily up to concluding high notes. It is a deliberate device used to capture a facet of her psychosis. It is, at times, employed with some subtlety.

For example, in the first of the major confrontations with Stanley Kowalsky, Blanche attempts to deflect Stanley's interrogation regarding the loss of Belle Reve with the weapon she always uses to manipulate men: her sexuality. She tries every trick in her arsenal: asking him to button up her dress; teasing him about his "big fingers", flirtatiously and repeatedly asking him how she looks. Trouble is, Stanley doesn't fall for her act like the high school boys back in Laurel did. When he gives a cursory answer, Blanche responds:

Now, ask yourself: why is the zig-zag contour used for this bantering remark? Because Stanley's refusal to reassure Blanche that she is an attractive woman is stirring up her neurotic insecurities. For Blanche, her advancing age and declining looks represent her personal failures and the approaching doom she sees ahead. Fishing for a compliment? Hardly; rather, she's begging for the affirmation that she's still loveable; that she need not hide in the shadows of life, fearful of being exposed by the harsh glare of light.

Rather than bemoan the "anti ear-candy" harshness in the setting of Blanche's dialogue, we should salute Previn in providing his protagonist with a vocal style perfectly suited to her psychology.

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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