André Previn wrote his operatic adaptation of “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1995 and premiered it in 1998, with a critical consensus of “What took so long?” Tennessee Williams’ play is already pitched at a melodramatic level, and set in the kind of Bayou heat that frazzles brains, that it seems a natural for a musical adaptation. Fortunately, too, Mr. Previn’s score combines modern music with New Orleans jazz, and produced a good thing: a modern opera with some tunes.
Stage directed by Omer Ben Seadia, and conceived as a collaboration of Opera Santa Barbara, the Merola Program and Kentucky Opera, OSB’s production by Jose Maria Condemi opens tonight for two performances. Gregory Gerbrandt plays Stanley Kowalski, the brutish “common” man played memorably by Marlon Brando in the film version. MicaÎla Oeste plays his wife, Stella. And stepping up to take on an iconic role, Beverly O’Regan Thiele sings the part of Blanche DuBois, the aging Southern Belle with a tenuous grasp on reality.
Opera Santa Barbara’s rehearsal period is longer than most, and at first Ms. Thiele thought that would be a luxury, but she’s finding it emotionally draining, due to her particular way of working.
“The way I do these roles is to put myself in their position,” she says. “I take it to a breaking point (in rehearsals) and then bring it back, so I can get that across to the audiences. I have to sing, so I can’t be crying.”
However, she hopes when she leaves the stage at the end, there will be tears in the audience (“and not just from my husband, having watched me go through all this”).
“There’s no character like her in all of opera,” Ms. Thiele continues. “She’s pure Tennessee Williams. There’s nobody as complex in classical opera, and I might get in trouble to say that.”
Ms. Thiele’s career has been focused — in a combo of both fate and her own choices — in modern opera. She’s played Beatrice in “A View from the Bridge,” Mrs. Williamson in David Lang’s “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” and Rosabella in “The Most Happy Fella.” Yes, she still loves her Verdi and Mozart, but modern roles offer her something more satisfying.
“It’s what I do best,” she says. “I can get more into characters. And the timing (of the plays) are more realistic, and more realism means I can relate to the acting. The music is always interesting and its own challenge.”
Growing up a farm girl in Iowa, it was country music, not opera, and given a karaoke evening, she might bust out some Reba McEntire, or by request some Irish traditional. (“But I’m not a performing monkey,” she warns.) As she headed toward college, she had a grab bag of interests: art, horsemanship, coaching track, vocational agriculture.
“I was not interested in opera at all,” said Ms. Thiele. But her voice teachers in college were the founders of Des Moines Opera, and as she did her work hours as house manager there, watching the productions every night, she fell in love with the art form. She changed her major in her sophomore year.
“When you learn classical, you are learning so much, that you’re in danger of losing who you are,” she says. “So that’s one reason I like modern opera, because like country music, those characters are real. I get to play a Blanche, for example, and I can relate to that more so than royalty.”
Life is too short to not do what you want to do, Ms. Thiele says. “I love Mozart, are you kidding, of course I do. But if there’s something you do really well, you should be encouraged to do it.”
“A Streetcar Named Desire”
When: 7:30 p.m. tonight, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Granada Theatre, 1214 State St.
Information: (805) 899-2222, www.granadasb.org