For soprano Carrie Hennessey, who plays Blanche DuBois in the Fresno Grand Opera production of Andre Previn’s opera “A Streetcar Named Desire,” this wasn’t just your average role.
Consider what was ahead of her when she landed the part:
• Renée Fleming created the role in the 1998 world premiere at San Francisco Opera. Tough shoes to fill.
• The Fresno production is stage directed by Brad Dalton, the assistant director of the San Francisco premiere. Over the years he has directed 75% of the “Streetcar” productions done since then. For this show, he’s considered the pre-eminent director in the world. That could wreck anyone’s nerves.
• It’sBlanche Freakin’ DuBois
, for Tennessee Williams’ sake. Blanche, the troubled and fading Southern belle struggling to hold onto her genteel ways even as she unravels in a New Orleans pit of pity and poverty, is one of the great iconic roles in American literature. People have high expectations. It isn’t just a meaty role; it’s an entire side of beef.
Hennessey did the only thing she could: Don’t think about how big of a deal this role is.
“If you allow that to get to you, it’s over,” says the Sacramento-based singer.
This is Hennessey’s first production playing Blanche, but when she walks onto the Saroyan Theatre stage on Sunday, Feb. 15, it won’t be her first performance. In a new creative and managerial agreement between Fresno Grand Opera and Modesto’s Townsend Opera, the two cities will essentially share the same opera company.
Hennessey sang the role of Blanche on Jan. 23 and 25 at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto, a 1,200-seat house. She’ll perform it one more time on Sunday in the 2,300-seat Saroyan, roughly twice the size.
“I can’t wait to do it again,” she says.
Matthew Buckman, the Fresno Grand Opera’s new general director, programmed “Streetcar” with Hennessey in mind. She had performed in the Modesto company’s “La Boheme” as Mimi, and Buckman thought she had the perfect combination of acting chops and singing talent to take on Blanche.
“You can sing the role like there’s no tomorrow, but if you can’t act it, then it’s lost,” Buckman says.
Hennessey, who writes a blog called “The Opera Mom” on her website, is used to multitasking. (Along with “opera singer,” she describes herself on her blog as “Lunch maker, carpool mom, mentor, voice teacher, self promoter, artist, score translator, wife, mom, website updater, neighborhood artsy lady with drum kit on which neighborhood kids can play.”) First and foremost, she considers herself a storyteller in her professional career.
Whether it’s singing such orchestral works as the Verdi Requiem or performing in such cutting-edge operas as Jake Heggie’s “The End of the Affair,” which she did last year for Berkeley’s West Edge Opera, she relishes those opportunities when vocals and characterization mash together so she can tell a story.
“Opera is the way I can use my entire skill set,” she says.
The 40-year-old studied opera in her youth, and while she knew she had the talent to pursue a career, she felt uneasy about committing to it as a career. She opted instead for a 12-year stint in corporate America. But the stage drew her back.
She landed in an innovative and well-known theater company based in Minneapolis, Theatre de la Jeune Lune, which was known for its physical style of theater — with lots of dance, opera and clown work in the mix.
Hennessey brings that physical intensity to the role of Blanche. One of her biggest challenges is that some of her character’s lines from the play had to be trimmed in the libretto because the operatic version takes longer than the spoken word. As an actress and singer, she has to fill in some of the blanks in terms of the depth and nuance of her character.
She says she’s helped by the chemistry and quality of the rest of the cast, which includes baritone Dan Kempson as Stanley Kowalski and soprano Kiera Duffy as Stella Kowalski. (Yes, Stanley’s famed “Stella!” line is given an appropriately dramatic treatment.) Hennessey also gives a shout-out to conductor Ryan Murray.
She’s been excited to tackle her role, especially after hearing so much about it over the years. Actors often sit around and gab about the part of Blanche, which takes on almost mythic proportions in the world of the stage. Forget about Renée Fleming or Vivien Leigh: Now Hennessey gets the chance to make the story of Blanche hers.
“It’s in my blood,” she says.