Just the Right Words

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

While Los Angeles has plenty of hyphenate artists, few ply as many trades as actor-director-singer-songwriter Philip Littell. In fact, he practically wrote the book--or rather, the libretto--on what it means to be a contemporary Renaissance artist.

Well-known since the mid-1980s for his work on the local theater and cabaret scene, Littell has, in recent years, added yet another dimension to his career. Since the early '90s, he has become so much in demand as a librettist that he has now worked, or is currently working, with perhaps more contemporary American composers than any of his peers. The list includes Andre Previn, rising art song star Jake Heggie, former Pacific Symphony resident composer Frank Ticheli, USC-based Stephen Hartke and longtime collaborator Eliot Douglass.

Littell's breakthrough as a librettist came with his commission for the San Francisco Opera's "The Dangerous Liaisons," which was first performed in 1994. His current outing may prove to be his most important yet: the San Francisco Opera premiere of Previn's "A Streetcar Named Desire." The opera, based on the Tennessee Williams play, bowed last night at the War Memorial Opera House.

Yet for all the anticipation that has attended "Streetcar," Littell hasn't let his other work flag. In fact, during the opera's rehearsal period, the librettist was commuting to San Francisco during the week and flying home on the weekends to play Gov. Danforth in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" at the Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon.

What's more, his workload isn't likely to lighten any time soon. "There's been a lot, and they're all coming at once," says the casually debonair Littell, 48, referring to his slate of upcoming theatrical, musical and operatic commissions. "My little joke to myself is that last year has been a tale of five cities: San Francisco, Dallas, Washington, New York and Los Angeles. I'm keeping all these going, meanwhile doing my own theater work here."

The result, he says, is creative synergy. "The fun of a variety of work like this is that what you really learn is the similarity of the process, not the difference," Littell says.

"I really believe in the flow. I've been told to specialize all my life," he continues. "But the fact is, I actually work a single art, or maybe two: the art of poetry and the art of theater. It really is all the same thing."

If there is one single recent work that Littell is known for (other than "The Dangerous Liaisons"), it may well be "No Miracle: A Consolation," the AIDS song cycle that he and Douglass have been performing, in various versions, for the past decade in small theaters around L.A. Reviewing the piece's last outing--in August 1997 at Playwrights' Arena--F. Kathleen Foley described the work as "pure emotion, purely expressed" in The Times.

More recently, Littell's well-received outings have included his poems for composer Frank Ticheli's "An American Dream: A Symphony of Songs," which premiered at the Orange County Performing Arts Center this April. The Times' Daniel Cariaga wrote that his "texts have a deep emotional resonance and a mystery, which the composer mirrored with lush, economical and touching sounds."

Yet it was "No Miracle" that brought Littell his current popularity in the opera world. Thanks to colleagues in common--particularly conductor Randall Behr--the songs made their way to San Francisco Opera musical administrator Kip Cranna, who recommended Littell for the 1994 "Dangerous Liaisons."

"Liaisons"--based on the original Pierre Choderlos de Laclos novel rather than Christopher Hampton's popular 1988 play--was the first main-stage San Francisco Opera commission in 18 years. The piece received mixed reviews, although Littell's words generally fared better than Conrad Susa's music.

More important, San Francisco Opera General Director Lotfi Mansouri felt that Littell had done a good job. And while Mansouri had originally sought to enlist Terrence McNally for "Streetcar," he turned to Littell when the playwright became unavailable, due to his work on the musical "Ragtime."

"I was happy with Philip's work on 'Dangerous Liaisons,' which was a very difficult piece," Mansouri says. "The [original] book is nothing but a complicated series of letters, and he had to distill the dramatic narration from the letters."

The challenge of "Streetcar" was, of course, a very different one. "It's not easy to write a libretto, especially for something so well known and so beloved, to distill the essence," the general director says. "But he has the sensitivity to a dramatic structure and to the source material. Also, he knows music."

The task, as Littell saw it, was fairly straightforward. "First of all, they wanted it singable and setable," he says. "My job basically was to deliver up the play to a composer." That consisted mainly of condensing and rearranging Williams' words. "As far as I'm concerned, my work was just to lean into the play, and to see what could be dropped, what could be simplified, and how to get it to sing," Littell says. "Part of it is a game of pick-up-sticks, because you have to remove about 40% to 50% of the actual words."

"The other thing was to create the illusion that you're seeing the play," he says. "The game for me was to use the same words, but to make them singable. Williams is thought of as very poetical and lyrical, but he won't go straight into setting. You'd scream with laughter." .

The only change that Littell was asked to make was to pay particular attention to the female lead. "They wanted to take excellent care of the Blanche, so there's extra arias for her," he says, referring to American soprano Renee Fleming, who alternates in the role with British soprano Susannah Glanville, making her U.S. opera debut in this production. (Other leads include an L.A. favorite, baritone Rodney Gilfry, as Stanley; Elizabeth Futral as Stella; and Anthony Dean Griffey and Jay Hunter Morris alternating as Mitch).

"There were a couple of places where I was asked to do extra [writing] that wasn't in the play, which was fun but very hard," Littell says. "It's sort of like doing a believable skin graft. It had to sound like Tennessee could have done it."

Indeed, it worked so well that Fleming decided to use one of her "Streetcar" arias as the title track on her new American opera aria CD, "I Want Magic," the release of which has been timed to coincide with the opera's premiere.

In addition to catering to specific instructions such as the Blanche request, Littell also had to work under the eye of the Williams estate.

"That made everyone nervous but me," he says. "The estate had absolute approval of everything I did. It turned out that they were very smart, very cooperative, and they gave me some of the most useful notes that I received. They knew their play, and they had their eye on the ball."

More recently, Littell was on hand during "Streetcar" rehearsals. "The weirdest thing about going to an opera rehearsal is that I forget they're singers," he says. "They're great actors. So I'm not as far from base as one might think.

"That's why I ridiculously took on acting in 'The Crucible,' " Littell says. "What it did is get me back in shape as an actor. You absolutely have to keep everything alive in order to do this kind of work.

"If my work has any continuity in opera, it's a real desire to have it be dramatically active at all times. I happen to have a huge familiarity with Shakespeare and other classic playwrights because that's the work I did as an actor. Familiarity with those works gives you a sense of how things are built."

Actually, Littell has a long history with both opera and theater.

Born and raised in New York City, Littell comes from a family that includes several opera teachers and conductors, though no one whose name is famous. He trained as an actor at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and ended up migrating to L.A. in the late 1970s.

Littell began acting at a variety of smaller theaters, including the now-defunct LaMama Hollywood, the Powerhouse and the Court theaters, as well as appearing in a 1980 Taper Lab staging of Len Jenkins' "Kid Twist," directed by David Schweizer.

Yet his kind of acting--strong character roles--never clicked in the rest of the entertainment industry. "I never got the jobs that anybody could do," Littell says. "I didn't get the goodies of a TV show. I was an arch specialist in certain kinds of [strong character] performance. It was always, 'Gee, we don't know what to do, could you have a crack at it?' "

In the theater, however, he found fellow travelers. "The Weba Show," a collaboration among Littell, Schweizer, Weba Garretson and the late Jerry Frankel, was one such venture in 1983-84. Popular on the artsy club circuit, it exemplified much of the cross-genre activity that was happening in performance at the time. Another project, a 1986 Schweizer-Littell-Frankel stage adaptation of "Plato's Symposium," started as a one-night fund-raiser and ended up running for a year at the Powerhouse and Court theaters.

In the late 1980s, Littell formed a band called Society Boys, which specialized in a literate brand of theater song the artist dubbed "cabarock." The group appeared on its own and in plays, until it disbanded in the early '90s.

Littell has continued to appear in plays, and to present his own shows--including last year's "The Wandering Whore," a musical piece about the sexual mores of 18th century London, which he created with his "No Miracle" partner, Douglass. He also translated Moliere's "Les femmes savantes" for the Theatricum in 1994.

His other recent musical works have included operas, a cantata and a song cycle. "Composers were just passing me along," he says, with a smile.

"I talked to Philip about the idea of Eve looking back on her days in the Garden and he called me two days later and said, 'Well, I think I've written it," says composer Jake Heggie, with whom Littell created "Eve-Song," commissioned by James Schwabacher. Three selections of it will be sung by Sylvia McNair on Heggie's upcoming RCA disc, due out in fall of 1999.

"He read me a couple of verses that were so beautiful, I was really moved," Heggie says. "Then he faxed me eight poems, and a couple of them were epics. I couldn't believe anyone could be so fast and understand a character so clearly. It challenged me. I came up with some of the best music I've ever written."

At the moment, Littell is slated to spend the next several years working on a range of opera and music projects, including an opera with Australian composer Richard Mills. The piece, about J. Edgar Hoover, will be seen at the Adelaide Festival in 2001 or 2002, and possibly in some American houses before that.

Littell is also working on a stage musical, several choral projects and an as-yet-unannounced millennial production for Disney. The last piece, about which Littell is allowed to say almost nothing, is to be composed by Michael Torke (with whom Littell is partnered) and Aaron Kernis. It will be presented in a major New York venue in September 1999.

"Why do I get these jobs?" he asks rhetorically. "I'm useful. It's not because I'm charming, or so damn talented. It's because right now I'm of use in this particular situation."

In other words, Littell is both efficient and a team player. "Certainly, the fun of working for classical composers is that it's very clear that your job is to get the music out of them," he says, referring to the librettist's sequentially first, and therefore necessarily inspirational, role in the creative process. "And I find that by doing the early listening, I am listened to in the end.

"I would like to continue to work with a wide range of composers," he says. "No partnership is intrinsically more fraught than a composer and lyricist, and yet I seem to have had smooth sails."*

*

"A Streetcar Named Desire," San Francisco Opera, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Wednesday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 7 p.m.; and Sept. 29, 7:30 p.m.; Oct. 2, 8 p.m.; Oct. 4, 1 p.m.; Oct. 8, 7:30 p.m.; and Oct. 11, 1 p.m. $22-$145. (415) 864-3330. Web site: http://www.sfopera.com

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