Virginia Opera does Philip Glass

The 2011-12 season of Virginia Opera will feature two premieres. One, Verdi’s “Aida,” is a logical choice to add to Virginia’s opera repertoire and will be presented in partnership with the Richmond Ballet. The other premiere is a little more intriguing.

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sponsored in part by Virginia Opera
Saturday, April 9, 2011, 9pm
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The 2011-12 season of Virginia Opera will feature two premieres. One, Verdi’s “Aida,” is a logical choice to add to Virginia’s opera repertoire and will be presented in partnership with the Richmond Ballet. The other premiere is a little more intriguing. Philip Glass’s “Orphée” isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind when most people think of opera. VA Opera has been in transition since letting go long time artistic director and conductor Peter Mark, but has brought in a director with experience with this show. Sam Helfrich has directed the show with Glimmerglass Opera, as well as Portland Opera, and will add Virginia to that list in January of 2012.

RVAJazz: How does a production based on a film differ from other more conventional operas? Does this impose boundaries on the performance or open the door for interpretation?

Sam Helfrich: “Orphée” is basically the screenplay of the Jean Cocteau film, set to Philip Glass’s music. When we first began to work on the production, our biggest challenges were that the opera changes locations with the frequency and speed of a film, and is full of cinematic visual elements which can’t be reproduced on stage. As we developed our production, it was very important to us to figure out a theatrical way of representing the story — one which made sense on stage and not as an approximation of the action of the film. Early on, the designers and I decided that we had to create a production that actually was IN NO WAY related to either the visual aesthtics of the movie, or its locations, and this really freed us up to be be able to create something original and highly theatrical. So, I don’t know if a production of an opera based on a movie is much different from any other production in its end result, but during the process, you are forced to take the movie into consideration in some way — either by incorporating it or consciously choosing to avoid it. By the time our production made it to the stage, it had very little to do with the movie, and as the performers and I created each individual character, we created them in relation only to the production we had invented. I did not ask the singers to watch the movie or, in any way, to make individual choices based on the movie. Again, this was very liberating, and allowed us to create something unique to the stage.

RVAJazz: This is a newer take on an old film based on old mythology, so how does this story resonate with new audiences?

SH: Greek mythology seems eternal in its resonances because the myths are about archetypal emotions and situations. The Orphée myth is about love, loss, death, second chances, as well as, more specifically, about the power of the artist and the immortality of his (or her) art. But Jean Cocteau didn’t just update the Orphée myth to his contemporary period — he tweaked it and set it against a very domestic, human backdrop of middle-class marriage and family. What we see in the Cocteau story is the struggle of the artist, but also the struggle of a man headed toward midlife, restless in his marriage, tempted by another woman, flirting with his own vanity, threatened by a younger generation, and wondering about his own death. Those are all very universal themes which always resonate.

RVAJazz: You started out as an actor. What was it that led you to opera direction? Why operas like Orphée? Do you gravitate more toward the modern repertoire or the classics?

SH: As a kid, I did indeed aspire to be an actor, but I put that aside very early to pursue other things, both in theater and in other fields (I was briefly a pre-med student). In college and afterwards, I wrote plays for awhile, and eventually shifted toward directing. During that period, opera was mainly a passing interest. Great theater directors like Wilson and Sellars seemed even more attractive to me because they were directing opera as well, but I never imagined myself in that area. My hope was to direct new plays and have a crack at Moliere and Tennessee Williams eventually, but Handel, Wagner, Verdi, Glass were not even on my radar. Then, while I was in graduate school at Columbia, I was lucky enough to land an internship at Glimmerglass Opera. That summer was transformative for me: I got to observe as 4 very different opera productions came together, and through my daily interaction with the young singers there, I learned a vast amount about opera and singers in a very short time.

That fortuitous summer pushed me definitively into a career path that I had never considered very seriously up until then, but now, several years later, I’ve hardly looked back. I didn’t choose to direct “Orphée” originally; it was offered to me by the folks at Glimmerglass Opera after I had directed a successful production of “La Voix Humaine” — another 20th century piece, also with a libretto by Cocteau. Maybe it just seemed like a natural fit;  it’s true that I’ve directed a lot of other 20th century works (Mahagonny, Amistad, etc.), and they are very attractive to me. Eventually, Orphée and I seemed to fit each other like a hand and glove, and it has become one of my absolute favorite pieces. I could listen to it endlessly, and I will never tire of directing it. If I were to summarize, I would say that my real preference is for Baroque music — Handel, Rameau, Monteverdi — but followed closely by a deep passion for 20th and 21st century music. I am especially enthralled by working on brand new operas in collaboration with active, engaged composers.  Still, Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” ranks among my all time favorites, and, in a surprising twist of fate, the first full length opera I ever directed was Wagner’s “Die Walküre,” a production which remains very close to my heart.

RVAJazz: You have experience with this show. What new things will you bring to this particular experience and what old things will you maintain?

SH: This is a question of balance. The production has travelled a bit now, and has been seen by quite a few audiences. I know very well what they respond to, and I am loath to start “futzing” with the show when I know how it works. On the other hand, in Virginia I will be working with an entirely new cast, and this really excites me. Though I will strive to maintain the physical elements of the production in the form which has been so popular and which was a motivation in bringing it to Virginia to begin with, I also have the opportunity to create the characters from scratch, and to capitalize on the strengths and talents of an entirely new group of people. I doubt that much of the physical staging will change, but the performances are bound to be very different; individual motivations may shift, a particular character may become more or less sympathetic than in a previous version, and, undoubtedly, new layers of meaning will reveal themselves. It is a profoundly rich opera, and I’m sure that, even for someone who knows it as well as I do, there is much more to discover.

RVAJazz: If you had to put some sort of label on the music, what would you call it?

SH: I’m not sure I would try to label it. Glass has been called a “minimalist” but “Orphée” sounds very different from a lot of his other work. Shouldn’t he just be called Modern American?

RVAJazz: How does improvisation factor into a performance like this, whether it be in the music or the acting?

SH: It’s hard for me to talk about the experience of the orchestra playing the music, since that’s not my purview and I don’t have contact with the orchestra in the way a conductor does, but I can speak to the experience of creating the piece with singing actors in a rehearsal room. My process is very collaborative — I like to challenge each singer to bring ideas to the table, to have their own interpretation of their character, to come up with their own point of view. I usually have a pretty clear idea of what I THINK I want a scene to be, but, more often than not, when we start to put it together, the individual opinions and talents of each singer require me to let go of my own ideas and take the piece in a new direction. This is inevitably when the best work happens. That said,  I’m probably not as guided by improvisation as some directors — I do like to have a clear vision of the piece and each role before I start to rehearse, and I usually spend a lot of time preparing in advance. But there’s nothing more rewarding for a director than to rehearse with a cast who are eager, enthusiastic, and opinionated.

Visit Virginia Opera online. Subscriptions for the 2011-2012 season — which includes Orphée, Aida, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, and Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado — are available now until April 22 by visiting their website or calling 1 (866) OPERA VA.

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