While many recession-battered arts groups are playing it safe, Portland Opera is going for broke. The company’s staging of Philip Glass’ Orphée may scare away conservative patrons, wary of anything written after Puccini, as well as listeners burdened with outdated ideas of Glass’ so-called minimalist music. But the opera’s contemporary setting, its brevity (18 scenes in about 90 minutes) and its themes may appeal to a much younger audience than operas traditionally draw. “A lot of this opera is about generational conflict,” says director Sam Helfrich, 40. “It’s a show for all ages, but it’s about young people.”
The prolific composer wrote Orphée, about the death of a poet-singer’s wife, not long after the sudden death of his own wife in 1991. One of a trio of Jean Cocteau-inspired works Glass set in the 1990s, it’s based not on the classic Greek Orpheus myth but instead on Cocteau’s magnificent 1950 film, which presented a Parisian poet in midlife crisis, restless in his marriage and threatened by the rising crop of younger poets. With a gang of fetish-leather motorcyclists and a metaphorical romance with death, Cocteau’s film is one of the most magical ever made. And that posed a problem for Helfrich.
“The movie was brilliant and beautiful, and if we had tried to reproduce it onstage we would have failed,” Helfrich told WW. For this production, originally staged at New York’s Glimmerglass in 2007, Helfrich and his designers had to deal with portraying multiple locations on a single stage, including, well, Hell. “In the movie, mirrors are portals from the real world to the underworld,” Helfrich explains, and their staging of the effect is one of the opera’s surprises. They also set it in the present, with motorcyclist costumes inspired by Japanese motocross.
The haunting score may also surprise Glass fans as well as -phobes. “Musically, it’s not what people are going to have in their heads as stereotypical Philip Glass,” Helfrich says. “It’s shifting constantly—you’ll have these arpeggios driving the scene forward, and abruptly it’ll stop and go into this shockingly lyrical love duet.” The combo of always relevant ancient myth and contemporary concerns is, despite Glass’ reputation, accessible. “It’s a completely enchanting and weird story,” Helfrich says, “with the feeling of a sci-fi film.”
SEE IT: Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St., 241-1802. 7:30 pm Nov 6, 12 and 14, 2 pm Nov. 8. More Orphée-related events: a free preview at Central Library, 2 pm Nov. 1; a screening of Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts, 7 pm Nov. 1 at Whitsell Auditorium; and a talk by Glass at Portland Art Museum on Nov. 3. See portlandopera.org for details.