Monday, July 28, 2014

Interview with "A Streetcar Named Desire" Director Christopher Limber

Christopher Limber
Stage Director Christopher Limber makes his Union Avenue Opera debut with the St. Louis Premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire. In addition to directing, Christopher is an accomplished professional actor, musician, theatre teacher and award-winning playwright. Phil Touchette of Operatic Saint Louis recently interviewed him on the task of staging André Previn and Philip Littell's adaptation of a Tennessee Williams classic.

Though you have many directorial credits in St. Louis, this production will be your first with Union Avenue Opera. What was there about the operatic adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire that intrigued you to take on this project?
This is a musically large operatic telling of a small American story. This is what opera and what Tennessee do best – add the heightened and recognizable truth of our inner emotional lives to the stage, with the music of poetry. In opera we have as well the dazzling power of great voices and a full orchestra. Poets and composers feed our need to understand and articulate our deepest longings and surprises. Inside my body, heart and mind, I experience life as emotionally powerful and extraordinary as an opera. I think that is why we love it. Opera gives full voice to own inner experience of life. Think of it – it takes a full stage full of singers and an orchestra to embody what we often feel inside our skin almost on a daily basis.
Does your process of preparing an opera differ at all from that of a straight theater piece?
The basics are the same – exploration of character and story and how those are told visually through staging; working with designers to create a world of the piece that embraces and articulates every human component of the piece. But then, there is the glorious addition and complexity of music. Though the cast is small, they demand a powerful musical palate individually and must work extremely well as an ensemble. Union Avenue Opera has cast wonderful singers who also are excellent actors.  I adore working with these remarkable folks. They are all inspired and disciplined – and they do their homework. The conductor, Kostis Protopapas is not only a superior musician, he is also a perceptive and highly creative theatre professional. He know how to tell a story onstage. Our collaboration has been rich and effective.
André Previn's score seems to consist heavily of recitative. Do you think Previn used this musical device in order to give Philip Littell's libretto the same kind of textual rhythm as a spoken play?
I think this opera stretches the traditional operatic form in good ways. The libretto is a distillation of the play and beautifully made. The rendering of Streetcar’s dialogue is not expositional; it is relational and interactive. It is not just necessary for imparting information to set up scenes duets, arias and quartets – it is all about expressing the relationship and events, that is, the wants, desires and emotional responses of the characters, in relationship to each other and in the moment. These characters don’t simply talk about how they feel and what they want. They feel a need and pursue what they want and hope to receive in the moment. It is emotionally active and full. These characters affect and change each other throughout and it must be immediate and compelling. In rehearsal we have wrestled and delighted in the exploration of how music articulates poetic dialogue and what I call “rebounding”: the back and forth of dialogue and the dynamics of heightened emotional response. There are many two-, three-, and four-measure instrumental expressions and transitions between lines of dialogues. Like a Pinter Pause these musical Previn moments articulate the inner life and experience of the characters. These are all thoughtfully designed and placed to drive the piece emotionally forward, but always in relationship to each of the characters, one to the other in within moments of each scene.
Did you find moments in Previn's score that shed new light on any previous conceptions or ideas you had about the story?
The journey of Blanche is experienced by the audience in–I believe–a full and immediate emotional splendor: her initial psychological fragility, her need and determination to win her sister’s love by “saving” her from an animalistic immigrant “Polack” husband who she looks down upon. Then Stanley, feeling his home kingdom challenged, assaults her, first psychologically and then physically, and destroys her sanity. All of this is beautifully articulated in the text – in dramatic action and embellished and portrayed musically. Previn states that the play has the story and emotional expanse of an opera. It is ready to be one. Then, there are Williams’ theatrical images: the Flower Woman, a premonition of death, the wrenching telling of Blanche’s husband’s suicide, the final haunting moments of the opera which offer the beginning of Blanche’s final journey in a wonderfully simple but extended way. These experiences within the opera offer the audience moments of emotional experiences which, I feel, are often in the play’s after-show residual intellectual discoveries by the audience about Blanche. This is what Opera does best: cut straight in performance to the emotional core of character and events. We feel the discovery rather than simply understand it intellectually.
Are there any scenes or moments in the opera that have been especially inspiring or rewarding to work through in the staging process?
There are too many to mention. It has been a constant process of revelation and discovery. This company is highly creative, disciplined and generous — with each other, the conductor and me. The collaborative dynamic of this process has been most rewarding. There are also many rehearsal moments, when I feel Williams, Previn and Littell are sitting right there and joining the conversation. 
Conversely, have there been any scenes that pose difficulties or challenges?
It is a quick process but as Leonard Bernstein notably observed: “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” In the arts you quickly learn to use every element of process to your advantage. This is the difference a professional ensemble knows how to make.
The theatrical space of Union Avenue Opera can pose a challenge to directors and set designers. In working with set designer Kyra Bishop, how did you arrive at a design that offers an authentic feel for New Orleans on the UAO stage?
Kyra is visually imaginative. She has brought the outside world of New Orleans which surrounds the Kowalski Apartment all around and then inside – into the layered effects of the design. The backdrop is an abstract expression of New Orleans – inside on the walls you see years of lives past in the layers of paint and wall-paper brick which are disintegrating together. We see through the curtain that divides the two shabby rooms as we see inside ourselves and others. We have used the small stage to our advantage – to heighten the heat in the air, the body’s passions and the heartfelt battles – between the characters in close proximity to each other.
Besides the well known aria "I Want Magic" sung by Blanche, what other musical moments should audiences listen for?
There are so many, and they flow in and out of Previn’s beautifully orchestrated dialogue recitative seamlessly throughout all three acts. For example: Stella’s recollection “like a Child” in Act One, of Stanley’s homecomings, Mitch’s description of love, “You know it’s the right thing” in Act Two; and Blanche’s tale of her husband’s tragic end. Equally affecting and dramatically potent is Blanche’s imminent fall into lunacy placed in undeniable motion with the Flower Seller, as she succumbs to her fantasy world and then, resigns herself to in her final aria about spending the rest of her days “on the sea.” These are some of many transcendent musical moments which offer new understandings into characters, which for all of us who know and love this play, have considered for years. 
What would you say to the "man on the street" to encourage them to attend this opera?
Streetcar is, above all, emotionally eloquent and supports the large romantic expressionism of Previn’s musical imaginings. The librettist, Philip Littell has crystalized a faithful and emotionally complex operatic telling. Previn has then added a lush and dynamic musical exploration using the power of music to express our deepest feelings of passion, regret, joy and sadness.  
As Shakespeare is to England, Chekhov is to Russia, Tennessee Williams is – to me – the greatest American dramatic storyteller. In 1947, “Streetcar” raised the bar on Broadway and won the Pulitzer Prize. His language brings to American drama a heightened and poetic expression and power to the lives of small recognizable Americans. The story and relationships in Streetcar contain an emotional grandeur and the dynamic of a real tragedy. 
This is a tale of two privileged sisters from a small Southern town, one clinging to past traditions and one exploring a new passionate life with a tough, Polish, working-class vet set in an earthy, shabby New Orleans apartment – these are all iconic American characters. They have become part of our theatrical vocabulary and they express our deepest emotional everyday existence. We are all extraordinary in our small normal lives. Williams knew this and that is why his characters and stories move us so profoundly.

A Streetcar Named Desire opens this weekend on Friday, August 1st and continues its run Aug 2, 8 and 9 at Union Avenue Opera, 733 N. Union Blvd. Performances begin at 8:00pm. Production sung in English with projected English supertitles. Tickets may be purchased online at or by calling 314-361-2881.

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