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Just the Right Words

Philip Littell can seemingly do it all, but it's as a librettist that he's making his biggest mark now.

September 20, 1998|Jan Breslauer | 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."

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