André Previn turned seventy in 1999. From Berlin refugee to multi-Oscar-winning film score composer, from great jazz pianist to chief conductor of both the London Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestras, through four marriages including Mia Farrow and present wife Heather, with an honorary knighthood for his services to British music, his story is extraordinary. Previn’s remarkable career reached a climax in September 1998 with the premiere of his first opera, A Streetcar Named Desire. He also conducted the production at the San Francisco Opera, with Renée Fleming as Blanche. This film tells the story of the making of the opera, based on Tennessee Williams’ controversial stage play, and follows the backstage trials and tribulations from first rehearsals through to opening night. Previn talks candidly about the experience and relates it to his international life and career.
André Previn has stood center stage in the world of music for the last fifty years. Tony Palmer s ninety-minute documentary, filmed in America, Japan, Germany, Austria and England, tells both why and how.
The documentary is certainly worthwhile for the glimpses it provides of staging rehearsals, orchestral rehearsals and other behind-the-scenes aspects of opera production normally closed to the public at large. For instance, it was illuminating to observe Previn’s patience strained by sloppy rhythmic readings in the string section, followed by slow-motion repetitions of troubled passages until he could remark, with heavy irony, “A thing of beauty”. It was also revealing when the camera caught Renee Fleming (who created the role of Blanche DuBois) backstage during a rehearsal break in a mood of weary pessimism as she was momentarily daunted by the prospect of vocally surviving a complete performance. I was also fascinated to watch as Fleming worked with a diction coach, honing aspects of Blanche’s southern drawl and how best to incorporate them into standard lyric diction for the stage. It was clear to me that the coach was somewhat oblivious of the rhythmic implications of her suggestions; in one example, Fleming tried valiently to apply an elongated dipthong into a rhythmic phrase that didn’t really allow sufficient time to do it. Fascinating!