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Cleveland Opera Theater Presents "A Streetcar Named Desire"

Theater-goers in Cleveland have an opportunity this weekend to see a familiar story presented in a different way. 

The production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Masonic Auditorium is an opera.

It’s rarely been heard anywhere, and WKSU’s Vivian Goodman reports this will be the first time ever in Cleveland.

It’s a fully-staged opera in 3 acts with full orchestra. As rehearsal begins the stage crew works on a multi-level set crammed with furniture. There’s scaffolding, backdrops, giant video projections, multiple costume changes.

A lot for the director to keep track of. 

“It is by far one of the most prop-heavy productions I’ve ever been a part of," says  Scott Skiba, an Oberlin grad, the artistic director of the Cleveland Opera Theater, and the stage director for this production of "A Streetcar Named Desire.”  

Her precious belongings
Blanche Dubois, the female lead, arrives broke by train in post-war New Orleans and boards a streetcar to her sister’s apartment, lugging everything she owns. 

“This great old steamer trunk,” says Skiba. “It’s a vertical one that stands up and opens and has fold-down drawers and slide-out hangers. And that houses everything from her deed box full of thousands of papers and love letters, to ropes of fake pearls, a rhinestone tiara, fox-fur pieces.” 

Tennessee Williams’ 1947 play won a Pulitzer Prize.

It's the Cleveland premiere, the Ohio premiere, the 10th production ever done of the work so it's a really rare opportunity.

Elia Kazan’s 1951 film adaptation starring Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando won eight Academy Awards including best picture. 

But the opera Andre Previn composed has had very few performances since its 1998 world premiere at the San Francisco Opera.

First time in Ohio
The work is notoriously difficult to stage, and very long at three and a half hours, but Skiba says it’s worth every minute. 

“It’s the Cleveland premiere, the Ohio premiere, the 10th production ever done of the work so it’s a really rare opportunity.”

It’s an opportunity Cleveland Opera Theater’s executive director personally treasures.

Andrea Anelli plays Blanche, a faded Southern belle who depends on the kindness of strangers but suffers a nervous breakdown after her loutish brother-in-law rapes her.  

“What I relate to in her is her desire to always try to find the beautiful in things even if you have to varnish the truth a little bit.”  

The Cleveland native founded her company 10 years ago at the peak of a successful operatic career. But back at Hiram College Anelli had been a theater major. 

“I wanted to be an actress on Broadway. I stayed in Cleveland. My path took twists and turns. And this just feels like putting together my opera self with my theater self in a very challenging, rewarding way.”  

Trying not to mimic Brando
Benjamin Czarnota is the male lead, playing the role of Stanley Kowalski.  

As did Marlon Brando, Czarnota finds the role emotionally draining. At the first rehearsal, he was shaken after the scene where he throws his wife down on a bed.  

“I remember the moment where I literally saw the look in my wife’s eyes looking back at me, and it was just such an awful feeling to know that I had caused that reaction. I mean Marlon Brando said that he hated playing the role by the end of it.”  

Czarnota tried to avoid the influence of Brando’s iconic performance. 

“About a week ago the director, Scott Skiba, and I sat down, and I did actually watch the movie. And it’s funny both to see things where my take was very, very similar, and then instances where my take was anything but.”   

Up close and maybe too personal
Andre Previn’s orchestration, with wailing saxophones and jangling harmonies creates an edginess that’s unavoidable.

So does the thrust stage director Scott Skiba extends from the proscenium into the auditorium. 

“It brings the audience closer to the action. It almost sets us in an arena-type feel. You can see the way the seats in the auditorium wrap around. But it also means that we don’t have an act curtain. All of the actors and actresses are changing on stage.”

Sexual desire is Streetcar’s constant undercurrent.

But Skiba says there’s no prurient intent behind the costume changes.  

“The ladies go down to their slips and their stockings, getting out of a party dress into a robe for the evening, entering from the bathroom in a slip, half-dressed, into a party robe. And it’s nothing that we said, ‘I just want to show some skin on stage.’ It’s very authentic, comes right from the text.” 

It works as opera
It’s dialogue that Skiba thinks works well for opera. “Tennessee Williams text has an operatic broadness to it. There’s a certain rhythmic vitality in the language.”  

Soprano Andrea Anelli adds, “Opera is often thought to be larger than life, and this story I think it is larger than life. While it’s about these characters it also is about the struggle in society between the beautiful and maybe the not-so-beautiful.” 

Anelli’s company started out as Opera per Tutti, but re-branded recently as Cleveland Opera Theater.

“For clarity’s sake and because the incredible renaissance that our city has been having.”  

Director Scott Skiba takes civic pride, too, in the historic venue.

A historic stage
Its seats are tattered and worn, but the Masonic Auditorium, first home of the Cleveland Orchestra, has a shabby elegance, along with great acoustics. 

“One of the most pristine acoustic venues in the world for live music, “ notes Skiba. “So it’s a real privilege to be performing in this acoustical gem right in our backyard here in Cleveland.”