I had a great conversation today with Sam Helfrich, the stage director of the Pittsburgh Opera production of Philip Glass's "Orphee." Mr. Helfrich is no stranger to Pittsburgh. He directed a staged production of Handel's "Messiah" with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 2011, as well as two operas ("Eugene Onegin" and "The Turn of the Screw") and an American scenes concert with Pittsburgh Opera.
"Orphee" uses as its source material the Jean Cocteau film of the same name, itself inspired by the Greek myth Orpheus. The libretto is hewn directly from the film's French script. Mr. Helfrich described the movie as "breathtakingly beautiful," and he has seen it roughly 20 times. Still, when crafting the direction for this production – first staged at Glimmerglass in 2007 – he said he didn't want it to be at all like the film.
"The language of film is so different from the language of opera or theater in general," he said.
Cocteau's version, he pointed out, is very much of its time. Released in 1950, it drips with post-war imagery. For example, dress suits worn by the film's judges wear hints at those worn at the Nuremberg trials, and a bombed-out city is reminiscent of Europe's urban ruins.
"We didn't want the opera to be a museum piece," he said.
The film, he said, also emphasizes Orphee's artistic neurosis and individual struggles. Mr. Helfrich believes the opera (and consequently, his interpretation) more strongly emphasizes the relationships between characters – in particular, the difficult marriage between Orphee and Eurydice.
Orphee, a poet, is pulled between his desires for creativity and immortality and the love, security and family life that Eurydice offers. Interestingly, Mr. Helfrich drew on other films – such as "Scenes from a Marriage" and "The Anniversary Party" – to explore marriage for the production.
Another device that is critical to the production (for the sake of both plot and metaphor) is the mirrors through which the characters travel in both the film and opera.
"We took the idea of reflection and doubling and incorporated that into every aspect of the design," he said.
Those are just a few of the concepts that inspire the direction. In any case, he hopes that audience members will come into the theater "with no expectations." Intrigued? Check out the Pittsburgh Opera production yourself, running April 26 to May 4 at the Benedum Center. Tickets and additional information at www.pittsburghopera.org. Check out the Post-Gazette next week for Robert Croan's opera preview.