Helium Queens Take Their Space Pop to the Opera

Sarah Passon
The Helium Queens — Poppy Xander, Chelsey Danielle and Sharla Franklin — transport audiences to a different realm.

Poppy Xander is melting plastic foam with a big wand while discussing the band Helium Queens' upcoming science fiction opera.

“It just splices into it like a hot knife," the singer says. "If you just cut it, it’s a big mess.”

It’s a fitting first topic of conversation, as Xander, who uses the pronoun "they," has spent countless hours the past several months hand-making props and intricate costume parts in preparation for Helium Queens: A Space Opera. And while Xander is used to creating vibrant plastic foam-based headdresses like this for other performances, they’re usually rigged together on a much smaller scale with hot glue and straw. This time, they’re using nuts, bolts and a whole team of collaborators to create a full theatrical production glowing in neon and following the story of three space queens from the moon.

Helium Queens formed four years ago after its members, Xander, Chelsey Danielle and Sharla Franklin, performed together at a female-centric festival in Kansas City celebrating the goddess Persephone.

“I've never, you know, been part of anything like that,” Xander says. "So while we were there, I kind of had this idea about exploring a universe in which there was a matriarchy established."

That’s when the space pop trio Helium Queens was born, and Xander was already brainstorming an opera.

“We formed this trio knowing full well it would be an opera at some point,” they say.

Flash forward to February 2020, when Helium Queens was set to receive aid from the Arts Activate Grant from Dallas Office of Arts and Culture, a project-based cultural funding program, to begin work on the opera. But the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the grant.

Xander, who plays keyboard and sings, also saw all of their gigs (Xander was in eight bands at the time) get canceled one by one. After feeling so motivated about the opera only to have the funds taken away abruptly, Xander became depressed.

“I had an identity crisis like a lot of people," they say. "And so the hardest was coming out of that.”

“We formed this trio knowing full well it would be an opera at some point.” – Poppy Xander

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Because of that slump, Xander says: “I'm learning to trust this process that if I go to the piano and sit my ass on the fucking piano bench, even if I'm crying, you know, about the world or that I don't want to do this, or whatever it is, and I start playing, even while I'm crying, then eventually it's like, ‘I'm doing it.’”

Ultimately, exactly one year later, Helium Queens did receive the grant, which had to be used by the end of September this year. Xander then had to “crawl out of that hole and say, OK, we’re gonna do this.”

Xander began rough drafts for the opera by writing short science fiction stories. They developed an entirely novel universe and characters.

“We didn't know what the characters would be, that developed over time,” Xander says.

The main concept of the opera can be credited to Xander, but that conceptualization has grown through conversations with others. The story of the opera goes like this: a group of women take over the moon and try to save the collapse of the bond between Earth and the moon, because, Xander says, “the moon really stabilizes the earth.”

click to enlarge Poppy Xander playing with Helium Queens with their signature black lights and neon attire. - SCOTT FISCHER
Poppy Xander playing with Helium Queens with their signature black lights and neon attire.
Scott Fischer

The production includes backing tracks, live music, dancers, an all femme/non-binary cast and, in true opera form, super titles projected above the stage. As for the 20 collaborators on hand for the production, Xander says: “I don't think at any other time in my life, I would have been able to believe that people would show up for me or anything I’m doing.”

Collaborators include Sarah Ruth Alexander (They Say the Wind Made Them Crazy), Nicole Marxen (solo artist and Midnight Opera member), Adrian Lea Valhalla (Primadonna), Reivin Alexandria (Sublimatorium), Karen E. Aguilar, Brianne Sargent (Polyphonic Spree and Skinny Cooks) and costuming by Teddy Georgia Waggy.

The plot of the opera is more about the plot of the Helium Queens in general.

“[The queens] come to Earth and they channel us. And we're their kindred spirits on Earth ... their Earthling voices by day," Xander says. "And then before we play, we channel them ... The characters are written out of who [the performers] are as people.”

Taking on the roles of costume and prop designer, performer, writer, director and producer for the opera, on top of their regular performances outside of the Helium Queens, Xander has had to let go of total control and allow others to help, something they say was very hard at first.

“[I had to] overcome my own fear of trusting other people," they say. "That's huge. I don't think I could have done this at any other time in my life.”

It's a true grassroots production, so Xander is also handling the marketing for the event.

“Some days, I'm like, ‘What the fuck did I sign up for?’” Xander says, jokingly. “The hardest part is, well, the emails.”

As a longtime musician, Xander says that stepping into the world of theater has been exciting and incredibly different.

“The number of people who have shown up and given experience and perspective has been incredible," they say. "Like, they actually come together for you. It seems a lot different than the music world.”

Helium Queens: A Space Opera will take place at 9 p.m. at 723 Fort Worth Ave., the home of experimental performance company Artstillery, over four days: August 21-22 and 27-28. Tickets are $22 and $33.