This paper is going to investigate the opera adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire. Particular attention is going to be paid to the relation between the original play and the changes made in the opera or caused by the change of genre. Naturally an adaptation of a play into an opera necessitates a more or less extensive shortening of the original text to turn it into an opera libretto, because singing a text takes up much more time than speaking it. The music added to the play may also change its atmosphere, mood - it might even be an interpretation which is not contained in the play to that extent. Thus this paper will follow up on these possible differences and examine whether André Previn succeeded in writing an opera A Streetcar Named Desire meeting the high expectations caused by the popularity of the play.
Beginning with a collection of arguments in favor and against an operatic adaptation of this play, I am then going to focus on the comparison of opera and original text.
Because I was only able to hear the opera and didn’t see it I’ll have to rely on the opinions of others when it comes to judging the impression the opera left on stage. These and other voices are going to be discussed in the final part of the paper.
2. Why Streetcar as an opera?
“I always thought [Streetcar] was an opera that was just missing the music”. This was said by the composer of A Streetcar Named Desire, André Previn, when he was asked why he was writing this opera. It is doubtlessly true that the play has some operatic qualities: it is poetic, dramatic, emotional and certainly conveys an atmosphere which can be expressed by music. It was argued that A Streetcar Named Desire would make a good opera libretto because it is possible to share the underlying psychological ideas, such as lust and madness, with the audience without needing lengthy explanations. But on the other hand these qualities don’t make it an opera yet.
A Streetcar Named Desire contained already as a play a lot of music. The stage directions constantly ask for various kinds of music to be played in the background. The “Blue Piano” is of particular importance as it not only stands for the music of the local quarter, the Vieux Carré, but it can also be seen as a means of expressing the dramatic intensity of the situation. The way the Blue Piano is played indicates this like a thermometer - its character changes according to the atmosphere of the situation. Apart from the Blue Piano the polka, or more specific the “Varsouviana”, is of enormous importance as it could be called the leitmotif of Blanche. Blanche is closely connected to this tune - for her it is the melody reminding her of her husband’s death, always ending with the shot that killed him - but for the audience the tune also serves as an indicator of Blanche’s mood. Like the Blue Piano the Varsouviana changes its character depending on the atmosphere of the scene. Apart from these factors there are numerous other stage directions asking for a certain music.
These strong connections between the text, the action on stage and the music played along with it would certainly be a good basis for an opera. However it can be just as easily argued against this: particularly these musical preliminaries either bind the composer or cause an essential part of the play to be lost when setting it to music without taking these into account. In the first case the result might be a full orchestral background score with the dialogues sung instead of spoken. But in the second case the omission of this characteristic music would alienate the opera from its ancestral play.
To summarize these arguments it can be said that there are a number of factors favoring the operatic adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, such as the story line which is well suited for an opera libretto, the intense atmosphere expressed in the play and the amount of music demanded by the text, but there are just as many factors suggesting that an opera A Streetcar Named Desire might be a difficult to impossible enterprise if one has the aim not to venture too far from the basis given by the play. It has to be taken into account that the already mentioned musical stage instructions could as well be an obstacle as they can be a help to the composer. In the end the question whether A Streetcar Named Desire would make a good opera seems unanswerable in theory, hence the next chapter is going to examine the result of André Previn’s attempt of setting this play to music.
3. Play and Opera - Differences and Similarities
a) The Libretto
The libretto to this opera was written by Philip Littell, who had strict limitations as to how much of the text he could change. The Williams estate kept a close watch over the process of transformation, making sure that “the greater part of the libretto is pure Tennessee Williams”. Littell himself said “I didn’t want anyone to know I’d been there”. In this he succeeded quite well because the text shows no significant changes, a few omissions because it had to be shortened in order to get to a length that people could sit through without it feeling like Wagner, but generally the libretto resembles Williams’ play to a very high degree.
One change made by Philip Littell was the cutting out of Shep Huntleigh. In the play he is the personification of Blanche’s dreams and illusions, in the opera these dreams and visions of life as she imagines it to be don’t take the shape of a specific person. But this shortening, although it sounds quite important doesn’t do the play much harm. Apart from this necessary reduction there were no major scenes reduced or left out: a few conversations are kept shorter than in the play, a few rearrangements have been made but none of these changes would be noticed by the audience except the omission of Shep Huntleigh.
Critics argue whether Littell did a good job with this libretto exactly because of this close similarity between play and libretto. The problem with this libretto is that, staying so close to the original, it didn’t offer Previn room for more arias and particularly for duets or other ensemble pieces. Thus over long stretches of the opera the listener has the impression of the play’s dialogues being sung. This effect was probably not desired but is has to be partly blamed on the libretto because “great operas are not about words and music but about situations and music - and the music comes first”.
 André Previn as quoted by Terry Teachbout: „Brand-name opera”. American Jewish Committee, 106.5 (Nov. 1998), pp.56-59
 Herbert Kupferberg: „André Previn’s first opera“. American Record Guide, 61.5 (Sept./Oct.1998), pp.5-6
 Terry Teachbout, pp.56-59
 Herbert Kupferberg, pp.5-6
 Katrine Ames: „Unstoppable `Streetcar´“. Newsweek, 132.14 (05.10.98), pp. 86-89
 David Schiff: “We want magic”. Atlantic Monthly, 284.3 (Sept. 99), p. 93
 Terry Teachbout, pp.56-59