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Julie Adams and Thomas Gunther – On ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

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Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire is being performed Thursday 7/10 and Saturday 7/12 at Everett Auditorium by artists of the 2014 Merola Opera Program. The cast includes soprano Julie Adams (Blanche), baritone Thomas Gunther (Stanley), soprano Adelaide Boedecker (Stella), tenor Casey Candebat (Mitch), and mezzo-soprano Eliza Bonet (Eunice). Co-produced with Kentucky Opera and Opera Santa Barbara, the work is conducted by Mark Morash and directed by Jose Maria Condemi.

A Streetcar Named Desire premiered at San Francisco Opera in 1998 and was later broadcast on PBS Great Performances. During my recent interview with Julie Adams and Thomas Gunther, we talked about the powerful impact of the 1951 film directed by Elia Kazan and the determining performances of Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando. The film was nominated for Best Picture, Leigh won for Best Actress, Kim Hunter as “Stella” won Best Supporting Actress, and Marlon Brando – whose characterization of “Stanley Kowalski”, then and now, is regarded as pivotal in the history of American theatre and film – lost to Humphrey Bogart’s compelling performance as “Charlie” in The African Queen. The shadows of Leigh and Brando loom large over Tennessee Williams’ work, pestering even the original cast of Previn’s opera – Renée Fleming and Rod Gilfry. How would they weigh-in?

“Blanche DuBois is iconic,” said Julie, “one of the greatest characters in American theatre. There are so many levels to her and she is so complex. Yet, not really – because she embodies what every woman in the world goes through. Blanche is at that age where beauty is fading, the crow's feet are apparent – and yet she always wants to be this beautiful woman who people notice and stare at. It was really interesting to find the different levels of Blanche and to play with that and create this character.”

Auditions for the 2014 Merola Opera Program were held last October. Those auditioning knew at the time that the program would include two fully staged productions – Don Giovanni and A Streetcar Named Desire. I asked Julie if the appeal to audition was this possibility of singing Blanche DuBois. The composer gives the character two arias, “I Want Magic” and “I Can Smell the Sea Air” – the latter an invention by Previn and librettist Philip Littell. Keeping in mind the challenge to convey an aging Southern belle on the verge of a nervous breakdown, I asked Julie what arias she had prepared for her audition.

“I started with Lia’s aria from L’Enfant Prodigue by Debussy. It’s a great piece and fits my voice like a glove. I know what to do with it and it shows my best abilities. So far, it’s done great things for me.”

That’s for sure. On March 30, Julie was among five singers to be awarded the grand prize at the finals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council. She chose Lia’s aria, “L’année en vain chasse l’année” as her first selection and in the second half sang the more familiar “Donde lieta uscì” from La Bohème. The Debussy piece is all at once beguiling and pictorial. Longing is expressed in rapturous ascending tones which float easily into measures of sunny nostalgia and then break off into hazy melancholy. A live performance of it can be completely enticing, seductive.

As audition material for Blanche DuBois, the aria is especially melodious – offering the singer extraordinary opportunities to convey certain key traits essential to her character. In both his stage and screenplay, Tennessee Williams gives Blanche many elongated responses, flashbacks, and wistful reveries. The Debussy aria contains the ingredients that Blanche would surely resonate with and describe as “magic”.

“My first operatic role was Blanche [“Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ”] in Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites. Not a lot of people know this role, but in her own way – that girl was nuts, too! There are a lot of expectations around Blanche DuBois because of the performances by Vivien Leigh and Jessica Tandy. That’s a lot of pressure! Also, there are a lot of things that have been omitted from the play, that do not appear in the opera – like a lot of backstory – the things that would have influenced Vivien Leigh’s gestures. Finding that, in the few moments that Stanley and I do have, is really incredible.”

Considering he had no knowledge of A Streetcar Named Desire, Tom Gunther’s approach to the Merola audition was all about landing the role of Don Giovanni. Stanley Kowalski? Never heard of him.

“I’m not a huge movie buff,” said Tom, “and I wasn’t in theatre when I was going through high school. I was actually in sports a lot. I auditioned for Merola because I thought that, since I had just finished doing Don Giovanni in February, they would just let me do the role. That would be really cool! I’ll just come here, do it again – that would be awesome – and really learn Giovanni. No matter how much time you put into it, it’s still a new piece. So, I went to the audition. My biggest pet peeve in the world is not being able to understand an English speaker singing English. I feel like I speak English pretty well. So, I went in and sang George’s Act II aria [“You bet it’s gonna be different”] from Of Mice and Men. Then I got a callback. They asked me to sing Silvio’s excerpt [Pagliacci], which is what I usually start with. Then they asked for “Soliloquy” from Carousel. This sounds kind of ridiculous, but Sheri Greenawald [artistic director of Merola] got kind-of teary eyed at the end and I thought – I’ve got it! I’ve nailed it! But, of course, you stay in the moment.”

“Sheri says to me – ‘How do you feel about playing villains?’ And I say, ‘Giovanni! Yes!’ Then she says – ‘We’re thinking Stanley.’ And I don’t know what Stanley is! So, I watched the movie and thought – Marlon Brando? Damn! He’s a handsome guy. And Sheri says – ‘Just so you know, you might be shirtless in this scene, sooo... Just saying, not saying you need to lose weight – but you might want to think about it.’ I think the advent of Barihunks.com has definitely created a new expectation and new type of singer. Before – people could make their careers off of being good looking and we all know people in the business who are doing that right now. I agree with the fact that singers should be in good shape. I also agree that it should be about beautiful singing. If we can get both, that’s awesome. But if we can’t get both – which side of the art do we sacrifice? Do we sacrifice the visual or the aural? And it doesn’t have to be that way.”

“But it has always been true,” I responded.

“It’s been true in a lot of ways,” said Tom. “Think about the large voices singing Wagner. Ideally, you’d love to see them be beautiful people also. But beautiful small people don’t necessarily make the big sounds that bigger people can make. It’s a tough call. Barihunks has certainly helped some people’s careers. I was just put on Barihunks, because I got into Merola. So! I’ve made it! As with any casting – it’s about who works well with this person, who looks good with that person.”

In many ways, Tom’s experience with the role of carnival barker “Billy Bigelow” parallels a contemporary operatic take on Stanley Kowalski. The original 1945 Broadway production of Carousel did not employ body mikes and John Raitt, as Billy, sustained a run of 890 performances. You had to be heard over an orchestra and out to the back row. Both characters are uneducated, formidable – dudes with a lot of Mars in their charts. The type that other aggressive types know can knock their lights out – what young and cultured Stella DuBois and Julie Jordan would instantly observe as “primitive”. Yet both are aroused and conquered. “You're his girl and he's your fella,” says Julie Jordan, “and all the rest – is talk.”

“The scary thing about Stanley,” says Tom, “is not that he hits Stella all the time, but that you never know when he’s going to hit her. You never know what’s going to set him off. I have a boyish look to me. If I smile, you’re not going to think I’m going to hit you. But when Stanley smiles, you may think he’s very charming, but – oh, he beats his wife. It happens. We have a kind-of sex scene where I pick her up and take her to the bed. Then there is the moment when I shake Stella, which causes her to go into labor. That is what’s scary, because you don’t see the kind of person he really is – except in these flashes of anger.”

“This is opera,” says Julie. “There are going to be some differences from the movie. This is Previn’s idea, his choice, and it is different. But, it’s beautifully different. I think what we’re doing is almost harder than the straight play, because the actor on stage can take as long as they want with the beat. We don’t have that. And Previn’s music is incredibly difficult. What we’re doing is incredibly hard. José Maria Condemi is an incredible director. Yes, it is different and I think it will be amazing. And all this work for two performances! But, they will be two great performances.”

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