Director Sam Helfrich is a great fan of Tennessee Williams, placing him among Shakespeare and Moliere as one of the best playwrights of all time. His initial reaction to an opera of A Streetcar Named Desire was "why?...why mess with something so perfect." He's here today to share how he rediscovered Williams' magical characters and fell in love with the work all over again.
Tell us about your take on these iconic characters.
A Streetcar Named Desire has three main characters: Blanche DuBois, her younger sister Stella DuBois Kowalski and Stella’s husband, Stanley Kowalski. Stanley and Stella are a young couple living in New Orleans and Blanche has come to stay with them.
Throughout the play/opera we learn that Blanche is pretty down and out and some pretty horrible things have happened to her. She really has no place to go and is on the verge of falling apart completely. She’s hanging on by a thread throughout the whole story. So she has come to Stella and Stanley for help, but she has her own set of prejudices and strong feelings about Stanley, who she sees as beneath her and beneath her sister. Blanche and Stella have come from a very wealthy, rural gentry plantation background and Stanley is a first-generation Polish immigrant, so there is an immediate tension between Blanche and Stanley which finally results in a very confrontational scene that I don’t want to give away. Stella sort of finds herself in the middle. Obviously she has a great deal of love and affection for her sister, but she also recognizes that her sister is really in trouble psychologically and on the verge of a mental breakdown. And at the same time, Blanche sees that Stanley is very abusive to her sister and that adds to the tension between them. Stella takes on the role as peacemaker throughout the opera.
What’s interesting to me most about the three characters is that a lot of people who are familiar to the movie or the play sort of think of it as Blanche’s story and descent into madness, but in our production we’ve really emphasized an equality among the three characters. Blanche through a series of events –which are in no way her fault—has been reduced and diminished to something she never was and is metaphorically like a candle that’s burning out. I think it’s unfair to write her off as mad or alcoholic or pathetic, because she’s obviously someone with very high aspirations and someone who, early in her life, was struck with great tragedy and never really overcame it. I want to take a sympathetic view of the character, even if by the end she does end up living in a world full of illusion and memory and is very out of touch with reality.
Photo by David A. Beloff
At the same time, it’s hard not to see Stanley as rather mean and cruel to her, but he has been put in an unfair situation and I’m trying to see both sides of his character as well. I think the portrayals of him in the past have been too sympathetic and I would like to take a harder look in our production at just how cruel he really becomes and what it is about his character that drives him to such cruelty.
Photo by David A. Beloff
And then, in certain ways for me the most interesting character (even though in the opera she has the smallest vocal part) is Stella, who obviously has a great deal of loyalty to her sister and her husband. In the context of a larger society where Stella and Stanley are a young couple on the verge of starting a family and heading into a very prosperous era in American history, Blanche poses some kind of threat to them. She threatens to destroy or permanently alter a kind of perfect marriage or positive, forward-thinking, optimistic view of the world. When Stella makes the decision at the end of the opera to have Blanche committed, she makes a very selfish decision in a way and one I always found cruel, even if it’s ultimately necessary. It’s these kinds of ambiguities that make the characters very complex and worth studying. I always thought Tennessee Williams was one of the great 20th-century American playwrights and these characters are indeed incredibly Shakespearian in the depth and complexity of their character and I’d like to give them equal weight in our production.
Photo by David A. Beloff
How did you prepare for this production?
The process of creating a new opera production really involves putting together a team of designers. The designers I’m working with here are Andromache Chalfant, set designer; Kaye Voyce, costume designer; and Aaron Black, lighting designer. These are all artists I have worked with many, many times in the past, so I know it’s a group of people that I trust very much and who are interested in having the same kind of process, which is to meet frequently, sometimes every week for months on end, to go over the story again and again. We would start with the beginning of the piece and walk through it and every time we did we discovered new things about it and pull new things out of it. It is in some ways a very tedious process, but only by really rigorously talking through the piece again and again and again and then starting to develop a visual language of storytelling for it in various model versions of the set design and in drawings and in research does the production emerge. It’s actually a very gratifying process. Part of what I love most about the job is getting to explore the pieces this intently and deeply and I think I share that with these three designers. Each one of us loves that part of the process.
I made a conscious choice, having not seen the film in about 12 or 13 years, to not watch the film again when we started developing the production. The movie is its own work of art and I decided as we were developing a visual narrative for the piece (the set design, costume design and way of telling the story) that it would be better to not be influenced by the film. The opera is the play set to music. There are some slight structure changes and musical interludes you don’t get in the play, obviously, and they’ve made some judicious cuts here and there for economy sake, but it’s really the play. In delving into the opera, I’m really delving into the play. The rewards of going deep inside this piece are the same whether it’s the play or the opera.
One of the challenges of this opera is that people are very familiar with the film and the play, and when audiences come into the theater they are inevitably going to be expecting to see something very much related to their memory of the film with Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh or maybe a famous Broadway or regional theatre production of the play – it’s been done a million times all over the place. And that was something we were very conscious of as we were developing the set and costume design. What we came up with was an interpretation of the piece that is very meaningful to us. What was important was to do something on stage that could express the essence of the piece without trying to reproduce all of the literal visual elements that people are familiar with, like a painstakingly-realistic two-bedroom apartment or the streets of New Orleans or lots of things a film version can do better than a theater piece anyway. People will be surprised when they come in and see a set that doesn’t look like a two-bedroom apartment, but what they will understand, hopefully, as the evening goes on, is the idea of three people stripped to the essence of their situation, which is being stuck in a very, very cramped space together and having to learn to live with each other within this weird trio of personalities and psychologies. As we were exploring the theater space, we knew we wanted to get at that sense of confinement and trapped-ness recognizing that the opera stage is a big place. So we created a “surround” for the piece that is not a literal surround, it’s a very beautiful somewhat abstract image that I think expresses the essence of the three characters’ struggle. Within it, we created an environment where people can enter and exit these doorways which are very much not a realistic apartment , but what that allowed us to do is to create a way of telling the story that involves constantly referencing Blanche’s own memory, and as the evening progresses, her delusions, paranoia and illusions about life. So, the set as it’s designed allows us to do that kind of storytelling in a much more interesting way than a very realistic set would have and that’s one of the things we’re very excited about. It was very important to be able to get at Blanche’s psychology at a very literal, visual way on stage.
Photo by David A. Beloff
Did you ever consider setting the opera in today’s world?
With any theater or opera project I embark upon, I always ask myself the question “Is there any inherent value to taking whatever piece it is and setting it completely in the present?” I think it’s an important question because I think all theater needs to be immediate and needs to speak to who we are now. But that said, that doesn’t mean I set every production in the present, it’s just a question that I ask. As we were discussing Streetcar, we talked a lot about if it would be interesting to set in the present or would it be interesting to set it literally in the period it was written or to set it in some middle ground. Ultimately, as the set design became more and more metaphorical and more and more representative of a psychological state rather than a location, we found it more interesting to become more and more literal with the costumes. I think the audience will feel that the piece is unfolding in that time period, but costume designer Kaye Voyce did something really interesting with the costumes, because she starts the opera off by costuming Blanche is costumes from her past so they are 10-15 years earlier than the situation of the opera, then we get to the end of the opera and we see the remaining characters as Blanche has been sent off to the asylum, dressed in very progressive, forward-thinking costumes that push us into the 50s. So, funnily enough, as the whole piece takes place over four months, you’ll see represented in the costumes a span of time of almost 25 to 30 years. I think it’s a very interesting way of talking about the present through those characters that represent the past and those characters that represent the future.
Sam Helfrich is an opera and theater directed based in New York. He has directed opera productions at companies including Glimmerglass Opera, Boston Lyric Opera, Portland Opera, Virginia Opera, Opera Boston, Spoleto Festival/USA, Berkshire Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Wolf Trap Opera and Boston Baroque Orchestra, among others. In New York, his recent off-Broadway production of Tape, by Stephen Belber, played to wide acclaim. Recent opera highlights include the American premiere of Philip Glass' Kepler at Spoleto Festival USA, Adams' Nixon in China with Eugene Opera, a fully staged Messiah with the Pittsburgh Symphony, the world premiere of Michael Dellaira's The Secret Agent at Center for Contemporary Opera in New York, the Armel Opera Festival in Hungary, and Opera Avignon, Rameau's Les Indes Galantes with Boston Baroque, Don Giovanni with Yale Opera, The Turn of the Screw at Boston Lyric Opera, Philip Glass' Orphée at Virginia Opera, Portland Opera, and Glimmerglass Opera, Anthony Davis' Amistad at Spoleto Festival/USA, and Aida at Opera Omaha. Upcoming projects include Heggie's Dead Man Walking at Eugene Opera, and several productions in Rostock, Germany, among others. He holds a BA in Russian literature and an MFA in theater arts, both from Columbia University, and has recently held guest teaching positions at NYU, Yale University, and Manhattan School of Music.