Last Monday I was back at Book Passage, but this time to talk about the two operas the Merola Opera Program is presenting this summer. I had a lot of fun working on my talk, so I thought it would be fun to post it here. Unfortunately, I can’t post the musical excerpts, but you can seek them out online.
It’s great to be back at Book Passage. I’ve been here before as a novelist, most recently last March. I was going to say I’m here today for the other important part of my life, but actually it’s the third of three important parts. There’s being a novelist, being a mom to my two-and-a-half-year-old Mélanie who is here today, and then my work with the Merola Opera Program. I was a Merola Board member for 13 years, and I’m now Director of Foundation, Corporate, and Government Relations.
The Merola Opera Program was founded in 1957 by Kurt Herbert Adler, the second General Director of San Francisco Opera, in honor of the first General Director, Gaietano Merola, who was a great champion of young singers. Merola is a summer training program for young opera artists at the start of their careers. Nearly all have already finished college and many have completed graduate school. We typically get applications from over 800 young artists from around the world. Our artistic staff auditions 600 to 650 of these in San Francisco, Houston, Chicago, and New York. Twenty-three singers, five pianist coaches, and one stage director are chosen to come to San Francisco for eleven weeks. All their expenses are paid, including travel, housing, and a weekly stipend. They have intensive training in vocal technique, acting, languages, stage combat, professional development, and a host of other subjects that will help hone their talents and forge their careers. A vital component of training is performance, so they put their skills into practice in two operas as well as our Schwabacher Summer Concert of opera scenes and our Merola Grand Finale concert at the end of the program.
I’m here today to talk about the two operas Merola will present this summer, A Streetcar Named Desire by André Previn and Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Both operas are based on literary works. Don Giovanni, with a libretto by Mozart’s frequent collaborator Lorenzo da Ponte, is based on the early 17th century Spanish play El Buriador de Sevilla by Tirso de Molina. Streetcar, obviously, is based on the Tennessee Williams play, which the libretto by Philip Littell closely follows. When I heard these were the two operas for this summer, I was very intrigued because though they are very different stories, from different eras, set to different music, there are some strong thematic parallels. When I wrote about the two operas for our recent newsletter, I called the article “A Season of Desire.” Not only do the characters in both operas grapple with their desires, for Don Giovanni and Stanley Kowalski, sex is definitely a way of expressing power. For the women in both operas, desire is a more complicated thing, largely due to the double-standard that existed both in the 18th century and the 1940s – and has not entirely vanished today. I thought I would frame my look at these two operas by playing excerpts from each that have thematic connections, My friend Merola Board member Patrick Wilken who has just about every opera recording ever made kindly made me a CD of the excerpts I chose.
We begin with Don Giovanni in his element – bent on seduction. He is flirting with the peasant girl Zerlina. Don Giovanni and Zerlina just met at Zerlina’s wedding to her true love Masetto, but that merely makes things more interesting for Don Giovanni He begins in elegant 18th century fashion by asking her to give him her hand. In this recording Merola alumnus Thomas Hampson plays Don Giovanni and Barbara Bonney plays Zerlina.
[recording 1- La ci darem la mano]
Don Giovanni’s approach to Zerlina is that of a courtly 18th century aristocrat. Not that he cavils at cruder methods as he shows earlier in the opera with Donna Anna and later with Zerlina. But he is very much in the mold of the Vicomte de Valmont is Dangerous Liaisons. The conquest is all. There’s no evidence in DaPonte’s libretto that he has an emotional connection to any of his conquests.
Our next excerpt is an iconic scene from Streetcar. The setting and circumstances are very different, but at the center we again have a baritone whose objective is to get a soprano into bed. The scene is a poker game at which Stanley loses his temper and hits his pregnant wife Stella. Stella and her sister Blanche flee upstairs to the apartment of their neighbor Eunice. Stanley then pleads with Stella to come back to him.This recording features the cast who premiered the opera at San Francisco Opera – Renée Fleming as Blanche, Elizabeth Futral as Stella, Rodney Gilfrey as Stanley, Anthony Dean Griffey as Mitch, Judith Forst as Eunice, and Matthew Lord as Steve.
[recording 2 – poker scene/Stella]
Sex is at the heart of both these scenes, but unlike Don Giovanni, Stanley has an emotional connection to Stella, which Previn brings out in the lush underscoring that is both passionate and unexpectedly lyrical. Both Don Giovanni and Stanley equate sex with conquest, but while for Giovanni the goal is to add more names to his catalogue for Stanley it’s more complicated. A lot of Stanley’s hostility to Blanche comes from the fact that he sees Blanche as trying to take Stella away from him (as Blanche literally does in this scene when she urges Stella to leave the apartment). There’s also a social class dynamic in both scenes. Stanley is very aware that Stella and Blanche came from a different world, symbolized by the lost plantation Belle Reve. He talks in another scene about pulling Stella down off those columns. Giovanni on the other hand is an aristocrat, which gives him power over Zerlina and also adds to his glamour in her eyes. Again, a house becomes a symbol of power and position in the world, as Giovanni talks about spiriting Zerlina off to his castle.
Both Giovanni and Stanley are baritones. In both operas, a tenor character offers a foil to each of these men. The next excerpt features Don Ottavio, singing of his love for his betrothed Donna Anna. At the beginning of the opera Don Giovanni breaks into Anna’s bedchamber. Exactly how far things go is unclear. In some productions, it is even implied that Anna perhaps was willing, at least at the start. What is clear, because we see it on stage, is that Giovanni then fights and kills Anna’s father. Anna makes Ottavio swear vengeance on the man who killed her father. Ottavio is reluctant to act until he knows for a certainty who the attacker was. In this aria, he explains that his peace of mind depends on that of his beloved. Hans Peter Blochwitz as Don Ottavio.
[recording 3 – Dalla sua pace]
For all Ottavio’s pretty words, Anna is reluctant to go ahead with their marriage. Her hesitation could stem from guilt over her father’s death, trauma from the assault. or potentially even because she has feelings for Don Giovanni herself.
In Streetcar, Mitch offers a gentler alternative to Stanley. And if Anna holds Ottavio at arms’ length, Blanche is eager, desperate even, to latch on to the security Mitch offers. Here, Mitch tells Blanche his mother wants to meet her, a prelude it seems to a proposal. Like Ottavio’s, his music is lyrical and fluid expressing a softer approach that speaks of love and yearning more than passion. Anthony Dean Griffey as Mitch.
[recording 4 – Mitch aria, “I’m not getting any younger”]
Desire also motivates the women in both these operas, but they find it more difficult to express. When Anna tells Ottavio about the masked man who broke into her room she says at first she thought it was him. The implication is that she would not have been unhappy if it was, despite the fact that a tryst with a man who was not yet her husband would be seen as scandalous behavior for a gently bred 18th century lady. Donna Elvira, the third of Don Giovanni’s conquests in the opera, apparently has had a longer term relationship with him. In fact, she sees herself as his wife. He abandons her before the start of the opera, but throughout the story she is torn between a desire for vengeance and a desire for Don Giovanni himself. In this aria, she sees his downfall coming and yet confesses that she feels pity for him and that while her heart speaks of vengeance, her heart also still beats for him. The music pulses with emotions stronger than pity. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Donna Elvira.
[recording 5 – Mi tradi]
If Elvira is torn between her desire for vengeance and her desire for Don Giovanni, Blanche is torn between her desire to cast a romantic glow over stark reality and her personal experience of the harsh nature of life and the raw power of desire. In this scene Mitch has learned that Blanche is older than he believed and that she is not the prim woman she appeared to be. In the town she came from, she had a reputation for sleeping with the soldiers from the nearby camp, and she lost her teaching position for an affair with a student. As Blanche describes how the soldiers would stand on the lawn and call to her to come down to them – much as Stanley called to Stella in the earlier scene – a woman passes by selling flowers for the dead. Renée Fleming as Blanche, Anthony Dean Griffey as Mitch, and Josepha Gayer as the flower seller.
[recording 6 – Blanche/Mitch]
What drives Don Giovanni to his conquests is never spelled out in the opera. For Blanche on the other hand, desire is an escape from the death and destruction around her as she saw her parents die and her home lost. “Death the opposite is desire,” she tells Mitch. Interestingly the woman selling flowers for the dead mentions flames and fire at the end of the excerpt, foreshadowing Blanche’s destruction. Flame also signals Giovanni’s destruction, when the statue of Anna’s father comes to life and drags the unrepentant Giovanni down to hell. Though Stanley and Giovanni both equate desire with conquest, it is Blanche and Giovanni who are destroyed. And yet when Stanley uses sexual violence to win his struggle with Blanche, he may sew the seeds that will unravel his relationship with Stella.
There’s so much more to explore in both these operas. I hope you’ll consider coming to see them. And I’d love to answer questions about one or both operas or about Merola. My colleague Dan Meagher has information about the operas and tickets. Thank you.