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Opera - Object of desire

Capitol City Opera, the little train that could, tries to pull a luggage-heavy Streetcar

No opera production qualifies as "easy," but Capitol City Opera Company's upcoming mounting of A Streetcar Named Desire comes freighted with baggage. The humble, 23-year-old troupe, under the baton of conductor and music director Eric Smithey, must rise to the challenge of composer André Previn's score and stage Tennessee Williams' iconic, New Orleans-based material. Between Williams' lyrical prose and Marlon Brando's ripped T-shirt, there's an imposing shadow under which to work.

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Capitol City Opera Company must defy operatic conventions to carve out its niche. While Atlanta Opera commands a $5 million budget, 25-person staff and repertoire of opera chestnuts, Capitol City has a budget of around $150,000, a two-person full-time staff and a willingness to program lesser-known modern compositions such as The Saint of Bleeker Street alongside standbys such as Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutti.

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For Smithey, it's all about connecting with audiences.

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"Anybody can do a bad Boheme," he says. "We don't have to add another one. We want to make opera accessible. Picking operas with themes relevant to today, and choosing ones in English, helps that process."

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In many ways, Previn's 1998 adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire makes the perfect show for the company. Williams recounted an archetypal, Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of opposing worlds colliding in faded Southern belle Blanche DuBois and brutish immigrant's son Stanley Kowalski. Previn's material (with libretto by Phillip Little) has been performed rarely since its 1998 debut in San Francisco, so it still feels like new.

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"It's also an opera with a Southern theme that's not Porgy and Bess," Smithey says. "Plus, a company our size doesn't have the resources for a huge chorus, and this is a big show with no chorus."

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The 11-singer cast includes soprano Kimberly G. Rosquist as Blanche, baritone Barton Gilleland as Stanley, Sherri Seiden as Stanley's wife, Stella, and Charlie Bradshaw as Blanche's suitor Mitch, and features an orchestra of 28 musicians — the largest orchestra in the company's history. "We do pay, but not as well as some venues in town. We've got very fine musicians who are here for the music."

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A Streetcar Named Desire's famous name has been generating more buzz than usual for Capitol City, but the adaptation has had a bumpy ride. After Previn debuted the opera, the New York Times' Bernard Holland observed, "A Streetcar Named Desire is so operatic a play that one wonders why more than 50 years have passed since its Broadway opening with no opera of note being made of it." American critics like Holland questioned whether Streetcar lived up to the standard of Williams' play, but Previn observed to National Public Radio that despite the mixed response in America, "All the European correspondents loved it."

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Smithey champions Previn's score, with its French Quarter flourishes of jazz and blues, but concedes that it's not always easy listening: "The only comfortable section is the love scene with Blanche and Mitch, and the prettiest section is Mitch's aria. The music is tough on the ear at times. It's hard to perform because of the jazz and blues influences, (and) there are a lot of meter changes. You look at the score and there's a lot of black (notes) on the page, as if the pianist is just banging his hands on the keys."

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For the conductor, the music is only part of the equation: "What needs to happen most, in any opera, is for the drama to come. If people want just the music, they should go to the symphony. The big opera companies will stage a whole show in a week, but we do it over six weeks, so you get depth, not superficial opera poses."

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Beyond the onstage stuff, the cast and crew are working on getting the details of post-World War II life in New Orleans. When he's not rehearsing, Smithey does everything from buying vintage Jax beer bottle labels on eBay to driving around with the set's wrought-iron stairs chained to his truck. Set designer Robert Countryman builds the set's apartments on his farm near Jasper, where half of his barn is dedicated to set building and storage — the other half to his horses.

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Streetcar gives Capitol City a chance to raise its local profile at a crossroads for opera in Atlanta. The 27-year-old Atlanta Opera moves to the new Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre in the fall of 2007, creating an opening for opera performed inside the perimeter.

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Smithey can't guess how the Atlanta Opera's new location might affect Capitol City, but points out that since he joined the group in 2003, the company's budget and attendance have doubled and it has opened an office with a phone line, giving it a stronger sense of its own identity. It doesn't hurt that, in contrast to weak growth in other performing arts, opera has been trending upward nationally. The national service organization OPERA America reports that the U.S. opera audience grew by 35 percent between 1982 and 1992, and an additional 8.2 percent through 2002.

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Smithey understands the challenge of offering a Streetcar that the public can appreciate. He admits that combination of Previn's challenging music and Williams' bleak material creates some tension to the singers and artists at the company's Marietta rehearsal hall off Highway 41. How would it sound? Would audiences buy it?

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"Then," Smithey notes, "a few days ago, stage manager Cindy Bistoury entered, listened and remarked, 'I guess it's supposed to be tense.'"

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The anxiety in the rehearsal hall broke, Smithey says. "After that, it became a lot of fun."



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