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Tony Palmer in conversation with Shirley Ratcliffe

1. In Search of a Scenario

Andre Previn. Picture courtesy of Polygram.'When I was asked to make a film about André Previn, I said no!'

That was the gut reaction of multi-award-winning film director Tony Palmer. Renowned for his music documentaries, Palmer knows he needs a very special peg upon which to hang a scenario.

'I've seen this film many times before', says Palmer, 'and I don't want to make another musician-on-the-road movie'.

Previn is an expert in public relations so his life has been well-documented over the years: his expertise as pianist, composer, conductor; the LSO years; his marriage break-ups and numerous television appearances. Who can forget the notorious Morecambe and Wise episode?

The film is intended to be part of Previn's 70th birthday celebrations centering in the UK at the Barbican in March. A meeting was set-up with Previn at the Savoy Hotel for Palmer to go on a fishing expedition.

'I don't think André knew I'd said no and he didn't know the purpose behind the first meeting. I asked him what he was doing over the next two years. He mentioned a concert here and a concert there. My heart sank!

'Then he said, "I've been asked to write an opera".

"What?", I queried dubiously'.

"A Streetcar Named Desire".

"I'll do the film!", I said straight away.

'Because it's Tennessee Williams, it's hard to think of another playwright, apart from Shakespeare and perhaps Oscar Wilde, whose titles are so well known to the man-in-the-street. This is partly because his work has been made into films: Streetcar, Baby Doll, The Night of the Iguana, Suddenly Last Summer, The Glass Menagerie - they are an essential part of our fabric. If a musician is crazy enough to tackle one of the great plays of the 20th century, there's got to be a story here, I thought. I was hooked!'

The idea of making an opera out of Streetcar had been an obsession of Lofti Mansouri the General Director of San Francisco Opera. Many people, including Bernstein, had been sounded out but they all said no. Previn agreed.

Renee Fleming in A Streetcar Named Desire. Picture courtesy of PolygramThe film follows the opera rehearsals up to the first night.

We were all getting on very well and we had absolute access. The rehearsal scenes are funny and very revealing. We see Renée Fleming [who sings the leading role of Blanche DuBois] cursing and swearing. At one point she looks straight at camera and says: " I can't believe I've been stupid enough to allow this to be filmed. I'm going to be so embarrassed, it's awful!". You can see what is going wrong. On that level it's absolutely fascinating'.

This sounds like opera-in-the-raw! When Palmer makes a film about musicians he confesses to being more interested in 'the people and the problems' rather than in the music, 'although the music is something that stirs me profoundly'. He illustrates this point with a story about his award-winning profile of Maria Callas.

'I first discussed the film with her around 1973. Here was the greatest singer in the world but the voice was cracked. What's the connection? I'm paraphrasing, but this woman had a terrible life. At that time not much was known about her relationships with men. We knew vaguely but not in any detail so for me this was a pure jump in the dark. I realised that she had been through hell and that's why the voice is cracked. She's trying to tell us something and it works on stage - she is vulnerable. The art has long gone but she is a true artist. That's how I want to think about her.

'Now, when I'm making a film about André and the backbone is the opera, then I'm interested in all his struggles. It is an extraordinary story: a penniless German Jew who arrives in America in '38 not speaking one word of English. By the time he's around 34 he's written the music for at least 64 films and won four Oscars. In the film he says it is an amazing experience. He learned more from writing film scores than he did from his German conservatoire training!'

Previn is a consummate pianist. He is filmed sight-reading the Brahms Piano Quintet with the Emerson Quartet. It is a standard part of their repertoire. 'I know they won't mind me saying this', says Palmer 'but they couldn't keep up with him'. He is also a fine jazz pianist. Previn relates the story of how he learned to play jazz. It is very funny and involves Art Tatum. He is filmed playing the Bruno Club in New York - the first time he has played jazz in public for some 30 years - and he plays Gershwin and conducts at Tanglewood.

Step-by-step Palmer is building a portrait. He feels that Previn has sacrificed on the altar of his art 'the things ordinary beings need and depend on'. He has four broken marriages and life on the road is a solitary existence. 'You don't automatically think of André Previn as a lonely man', reflects Palmer, 'but I think there is a certain parallel with Blanche in Streetcar. There is a real loneliness to the man'.

The film was sent to Previn on completion. 'He was very worried about some aspects so we talked them through. He wanted to know why I had done some things in a certain way. Although he didn't necessarily agree with me, once he understood he left it. I only had to make one minor change. I don't know whether he approves of the film but he is sensible and intelligent enough not to interfere with somebody else's view of him. He wanted assurance that nothing in it was arbitrary.

'I use part of Vaughan Williams' Fifth Symphony for the soundtrack. It gives a particular colour and feel. André was curious but he could see what I was getting at. I also told him that apart from the original Boult recordings, his are the best ever of the VW symphonies. It's a shocking disgrace that they have never been released on CD. If you're looking at this EMI, you should be ashamed of yourselves! They are the definitive recordings and that was the reference for the film'.

The recordings were made at a time when VW was not in fashion. Over the years, Previn has shone a particularly illuminating light on English music.

Rodney Gilfry in A Streetcar Named Desire. Picture courtesy of Polygram'No wonder he was given an honorary knighthood and rightly so', remarks Palmer. 'He's done so much for English music in spite of being regarded in certain quarters as that Hollywood man who plays dreadful jazz! Some people have got a lot to answer for'. And then with a grin: 'you know who I mean!'

The première of The Kindness of Strangers is on Sunday 21 March at 3.30pm in the Barbican Cinema. The title for the film is taken from the last line of A Streetcar Named Desire.

A live recording of the opera A Streetcar Named Desire from San Francisco Opera House has been made by Deutsche Grammophon on 459 366-2GX3 (three discs). The principal roles are sung by Renée Fleming, Rodney Gilfry and Elizabeth Futral. The Orchestra of San Francisco Opera is conducted by André Previn.

Part 2 >>

Copyright © Shirley Ratcliffe, March 17th 1999