Vashon Opera concludes its 10th season this weekend by journeying into the New Orleans underworld with “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Composer André Previn adapted the opera from Tennessee Williams’ play. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 17, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, May 19, at Vashon Center for the Arts.
The current season began with “La Bohème,” a popular favorite with a full chorus. By contrast, Streetcar may be new to many patrons, and the cast of 10 centers around just four principal players.
Artistic Director Jennifer Krikawa said the contrast is by design.
“There are people in our audience who have seen 40 Traviatas. So we like the idea of giving patrons something where they’re willing to dip their toe in and try something they’ve maybe never seen,” she said.
Although many audience members will be familiar with the image of Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, Krikawa’s role, Blanche DuBois, is the central figure of the opera.
DuBois arrives in New Orleans to form a new life with her sister, Stella (Jessica Milanese). The men around Blanche, brother-in-law Stanley (Eric Olson) and would-be suitor Mitch (Brendan Tuohy), unveil the secrecy Blanche has built around her past, with tragic ends.
“She’s a Southern lady, and she presents herself as very proper, and she expects other people to behave the way she requires them. But in the end, she’s very vulnerable,” Krikawa said.
Krikawa said composer Previn wrote the score to carry much of the emotional weight of the story, allowing the words drawn from Tennessee Williams’ text to shine through clearly.
“Previn really wanted the words to be heard,” Krikawa said.
James Brown, who serves as the musical director, stage director and conductor, said many elements converge in Previn’s score.
“Andre Previn was an extraordinary American musician, and this score is an amalgamation of all the great composers that Previn encountered as a conductor. I think that makes it special. You hear all the great voices of the 20th-century composers he conducted in his music,” Brown said.
Previn, whose family fled Europe when he was a child in 1939, died in February of this year at age 89. During his long career, he absorbed a full palette of musical styles, including the jazz overtones he added to the score of Streetcar.
“I think the jazz element makes the music relatable to people because there’s quite a bit of modernity throughout the score — not all hard to listen to. But occasionally you will hear a saxophone emerge playing a jazz riff, and it’s a very relatable sort of idea,” Brown said.
Brown lived in New Orleans and recognizes the character of the city in both Tennessee Williams’ story and Previn’s score.
“New Orleans as a city has this mystique about it. There are lots of ghost stories. Ann Rice lives there. It’s that kind of place. The tombs are all above ground,” Brown said.
Having contributed to Vashon Opera for the past nine years, Brown says he is impressed with the passion and effort that converge in the productions.
“I work with other companies that are very good, but they struggle to make it work because they don’t have this battalion of people that make it work.
“What has struck me from the beginning is the amount of volunteers that put in countless hours. The willingness and passion it takes to put in these hours is just amazing, from the production side to the logistics side. If we include donors and patrons, it has to be a couple of hundred people. That is the big difference,” Brown said.
Although Krikawa also credits the massive community effort involved in bringing each production to life, she is quick to emphasize that at its core, Vashon Opera is a professional production company.
The orchestra of musicians that will accompany Streetcar is composed of professionals. The singers prepared for what Krikawa said is a very challenging score in the midst of their own busy schedules of performances around the region and the globe.
In mastering the score, none have faced a bigger task than Krikawa. Blanche sings the first and last lines and is in nearly every scene. She said she began work on Previn’s score last summer, with intensive rehearsals this spring.
“The music is really challenging, but that is exciting to me,” Krikawa said.
Vashon Opera patrons will be familiar with Jessica Milanese, who plays Stella. Milanese played Lucia in “Lucia di Lammermoor” in fall 2017.
“Her voice just shimmers, and she’s perfect for this role,” Krikawa said.
Eric Olson also returns to the Vashon Opera stage as Stanley, having played Schaunard in “La Bohème.” Brendan Tuohy, playing Blanche’s suitor Mitch, sang as Tamino in “The Magic Flute.”
Other cast members include Kathryn Weld, Barry Johnson, Julia Benzinger, Joshua Carlisle, Rick Turner and, in an apt role, longtime Vashon physician Gary Koch as Doctor.
Tickets, $25 to $48, are available at vashoncenterforthearts.org. Approximate running time is 2 hours and 45 minutes, including one intermission.
In addition, Director Brown will present a free opera preview lecture at the Vashon Library from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, May 11.
For the future of the company, Krikawa sees more of what she has already seen.
“I think we’re doing what we want to do. I just want to present live opera, and just do the best job we can to show people the artform and the work to the best of our ability,” she said.