February 16, 2013

"Streetcar" and Previn: a smorgasbord of musical references

Most new operas encounter a wide range of critical assessments. Heck even Mozart was told by Emperor Josef II that his latest stage work had "too many notes". So it's understandable that André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire has been both praised and scorned in published reviews since premiering at the San Fransisco Opera in 1998.

Giacomo Puccini
One gripe amongst detractors has been the perceived lack of a unified musical style. Katharina Kierig, in her seminar paper "Tennessee Williams' Play 'A Streetcar Named Desire' - An Opera Missing The Music?" sums up this point of view: "It is impossible to discover one coherent musical style in (Previn's) music...". She admits that her paper is based solely on listening to a recording, without benefit of seeing a live staged perfomance, placing her on dubious ground to be rendering a credible critical opinion.

Those who are attending Virginia Opera's upcoming production of the opera may agree or disagree with Kierig, but Your Humble Blogger would like to weigh in with his considered opinion. (Disclaimer: I also have yet to see a live staged performance. Hey, I've lived my entire life on dubious ground - nothing new here, heh heh heh.)

I've learned one thing when it comes to judging new music: when a composer does something I don't  understand, I ask myself a crucial question:

Howcome-why he do that?

Aaron Copland
Seriously, when you start questioning a composer's choices rather than merely reacting to them, you're likely to gain more perspective. So I ask: why would a highly experienced and gifted musician like André Previn compose an opera lacking a unified style? Did he forget how to be talented? Well, that seems unlikely, doesn't it, now?

There are two possibilities here:

1) The array of contrasting musical styles is a deliberate choice; a device, as it were, meaning that the composer is in control of his materials. OR,

2) The composer was unaware of the disparate nature of his stylistic elements, meaning that he is not in control of his materials; in short, that he has no compositional craft. No technique. No chops.

You can't say Previn is one of our most gifted American musicians and still allow for the possibility of Number Two. So let me make a case for Number One. 

First, let's do a quick survey of the types of contrasting styles present in the Streetcar score. Then I'll posit a theoretical method to the composer's stylistic madness. What styles have I identified?

  • Puccini. Stella's aria in Act I, Scene 1, "I can hardly stand it", is suavely lyrical and tonal, clearly in the key of B minor. However, note this particular passage:
In performance, this section is so similar in tone, texture, vocal writing and harmony as to be a "kissing cousin" from Liu's solo "Tanto amore" in Act III of Puccini's Turandot:

    Is Previn simply incapable of composing an opera aria without channeling Puccini? Clearly not, since this style is isolated to this aria. Therefore, I conclude that it is intended as an homage for reasons I'll sum up below. Here's another musical reference:
  •  Aaron Copland. In the orchestral introduction to Act II, scene 2, Previn needs to strike the right tone of rough-edged masculine energy to herald the first appearance of Stanley Kowalski. As a veteran orchestral conductor, Previn realizes that when it comes to rough-edged masculine energy, one can do no better than a tip of the cap to Aaron Copland: the Copland of Rodeo and Billy the Kid. Accordingly, he adopts the brusque rhythms and open sonorities of Copland at his Coplandiest:

And what do you know? My next example consists of:
  •  More Puccini! In Act II of Streetcar, Mitch's ill-advised courtship of Blanche is highlighted with a structural oddity seldom found in opera: two consecutive arias which are not separated by dialogue or recitative. Mitch provides Blanche (and us) with his back story in his solo "I'm not a boy, she says", and after a nice applause-inducing final chord, Blanche dives right in with a soliloquy of her own, "He was a boy". Quick, opera buddies: what's the only other opera you can think of in which a tenor and soprano under the spell of mutual attraction sing autobiographical solos in succession with no intervening material? If you said La bohème, why, you're just as smart as I suspected you were! Of course, in Act I of Bohème, Rodolfo and Mimi introduce themselved to one another in just the same format. In the case of Mitch and Blanche, we might refer to them as "Bizarro Rodolfo" and "Bizarro Mimi", since the content of the arias is almost perversely in contrast to Puccini's. Far from being an ambitious poet, Mitch turns out to be a pathetic "Mama's boy", whereas in Blanche's case we are "treated" to a dismal recounting of the suicide of Alan Grey, her homosexual husband of years ago. Granted, this is more a literary reference to Puccini as opposed to any element of musical style, but it counts!

  • And finally, Richard Strauss receives an acknowledgement as well. In an essay written for the Virginia Opera blog, we pointed out the similarity of Williams' depiction of Blanche's final descent into madness to that of Salome in Oscar Wilde's drama. Each woman loses touch with reality following an act of traumatic violence: the beheading of John the Baptist for one, a sexual assault for the other. In my opinion, Previn, seemingly quite aware of this connection, reinforces it by assigning Blanche a rapturously blissful final solo totally in keeping with the super-romanticized outpouring of Salome's final utterance. Imagining herself about to embark on a cruise at sea, Blanche rhapsodizes about dying on the ocean:
The sumptuous tertian sonorities, soaring string crescendo (very Straussian!) and dominant-tonic motion in the bass stand in stark, almost shocking contrast to the brittle chromaticism that characterizes much of the music of Streetcar, just as there is something shocking in the contrast of Salome's dabauched sexuality and the intense sweetness of her final moments.

Conclusion: in the blog post referenced above, we pointed out that Tennessee Williams, in the script to his play, piled literary allusion upon literary allusion - Greek mythology, Shakespeare, Gone With the Wind and Salome. Why, then, should André Previn not feel licensed to help himself to a series of allusions to musical sources as well? Sauce for the goose-author, sauce for the gander-composer, right? This is my theory as to the widely-ranging styles appearing throughout the music of Stretcar: they constitute a parallel gesture to the various homages of the dramatist whose play inspired him to take up the craft of opera. It's André Previn making choices; being in control of his materials. The opera sounds as he wished and intended it to sound, which is, perhaps, the only meaningful definition of a successful composition. Will you like it? Will you endorse his choices? Come catch a show and find out!

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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