Renee Fleming Makes Rare Return to L.A. in 'A Streetcar Named Desire'

Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Sony Pictures/AP Images
Renee Fleming

The famed soprano, who sang the National Anthem at this year's Super Bowl, appears in three L.A. Opera performances of a semi-staged version of the Tennessee Williams classic.

They call Renee Fleming "the people’s diva," but that hasn’t included the people of Los Angeles since her L.A. Opera debut in 2006’s La Traviata. But that’s about to change. Fleming is in town for one week only, reprising her signature role Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire for three performances May 18, 21 and 24.

Joining her will be baritone Ryan McKinney as Stanley Kowalski, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey as Mitch, and soprano Stacey Tappan as Stella. Evan Rogister will conduct Andre Previn’s 1997 score set to Philip Littell’s libretto.

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Gathered to greet the press Thursday afternoon were Fleming and L.A. Opera director Placido Domingo, who graciously welcomed her back and spoke about his own production of Thais, which will be running concurrently starting May 17.

Streetcar is presented in a semi-staged version, similar to last year’s production at Carnegie Hall and Chicago’s Lyric Theatre where Fleming is creative consultant -- only this time, the stage thrusts outward, inviting the audience in on a more intimate level.

"I love this production," Fleming told The Hollywood Reporter. "The scenery are men, men in various stages of undress. And they’re menacing, they’re in her imagination, they’re in her past. So there’s a whole element to this production which isn’t realistic, which makes it a lot more interesting."
 
Fleming relished the idea of working with Previn to tailor the role for her specific voice. She asked for solos she could sing in concert and was blessed with two outstanding arias (“I Want Magic” and “I Can Smell the Sea Air”). Among other things, Fleming is known as a Strauss specialist, which she is given ample opportunity to demonstrate in this eclectic score that runs the gamut from impressionist harmonies to New Orleans jazz, with a little Alban Berg-style expressionism thrown in to illustrate Blanche’s fragile mental state.
 
"I gave him license to write a lot more challenging things into the part, especially more sustained high notes and pianissimos, to make the role more glamorous,” said Fleming about working with Previn. "He said, ‘If you’re willing to do that.’ It makes it more challenging for me, but then it’s also more gratifying.

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It’s a daunting operatic undertaking, even more so than singing the National Anthem at last February’s Super Bowl. When she told reporters that the audience of ten million was larger than all her previous audiences combined, Domingo stepped in to correct her, noting it was considerably larger than ten million, (111.5 million, actually), to which she could only sigh and shake her head.

Fleming was going through a rough patch in her personal life back in 1998 when the opera premiered, but took the advice of actor Julie Harris, star of the 1967 Broadway production, who assured her the role could work as a catharsis. "'Doing it in Los Angeles takes a special amount of courage," observed Fleming. "This is a town that really knows acting and appreciates acting and cares about theatre as well – and the iconic film of all time and this piece was made here. It was daunting in that respect but also you have to give so much physically, emotionally and vocally. It’s a huge toll that this role takes."

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