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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 15, No. 1

Robert Lepage: Making the Impossible

by Wah Keung Chan & Hannah Rahimi / September 1, 2009

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The brilliant Robert Lepage is always on the move and in constant demand. Over the last year, he has appeared in public as an opera director (Damnation of Faust), a theatre director (Lipsynch), an actor (Blue Dragon) and a dancer (Eonnagata), all the while presiding over a multitude of future projects. It’s little wonder that his personal schedule is almost planned to the minute a year in advance. The 52-year-old Lepage likes to say that he’s nothing more than a traffic director, but to his team he is the visionary, the epicenter of creation. There is a mythical aura about him that is universally recognized by the public, the arts community and governments.

Since 1993, Lepage has been in such high demand that he has developed a well-oiled team to support his every project. At Ex Machina in Old Quebec, people are constantly in motion. In 1997, the Quebec City Mayor donated an old fire hall to welcome Lepage back to his hometown, and the Caserne Dalhousie is his epicenter of creativity. Some weeks, it’s a rehearsal space to test out future projects, others it becomes a workshop for props and costumes.

One would be tempted to see similarities between Ex Machina and Quebec’s top cultural export, the Cirque du Soleil, but the company admittedly lacks the expertise in promoting its shows to a worldwide public. Rather it focuses on its strength as an incubator of creativity, bringing artists from different genres together to explore different mediums of expression. It’s this focus on creativity that has steered Lepage away from traditional repertoire towards the new: new ideas, creations and technologies.

The long list of ongoing projects takes Lepage and his team all over the world. One of the reasons for Ex Machina is the desire for creative control. When a Lepage production is presented it arrives with his team ready to implement his vision. Lepage always makes an appearance for fine-tunings. Furthermore, he is a magnetic and important presence so the companies and producers want him there. “He’s very hands-on,” says Bernard Gilbert, production director of opera at Ex Machina. “He often finds technical solutions that have confounded us.”


One of the recurring themes in Lepage’s works is his fascination with all things Asian, a fascination that is shared by many westerners of his generation. He is even known to tend to the Japanese sand garden on the terrace next to his office. He calls his recent Blue Dragon a spin-off “like that of American TV” to the Dragons Trilogy he premiered 25 years ago, which explored the relationship between Canadians and the Chinese immigrant community. “We thought it would be interesting if we sent one of the characters to China as an immigrant spending part of his life in Shanghai, going through Hong Kong first,” says Lepage. “At the end of the Dragon trilogy, 25 years ago, the character Pierre Lamontagne receives a government bursary to study calligraphy in Asia. In this show we see what happened in the meantime and his preoccupation today. Of course it’s not just about his relationship with the Oriental culture – it’s a pretext to comment on Quebec. It’s always about searching for identity and Shanghai is a good setting to have a debate about what the reality in Quebec is. You get a point of comparison that is radically different. China right now is in a big era of change, whereas in Quebec we always feel we talk about change but nothing ever happens. We use China as a negative – not negative in the pejorative sense but negative in the photographic sense, an opposite mirror to who the characters are.”


Lepage is a prime example of the idea that to be a great artist you have to be a keen observer of history, culture and above all, ideas. He gets a kick out of saying that 1608 was a great year. Close to home, that year was the founding of Quebec City, for which Lepage created the highly successful Image Mill to celebrate the city’s 400th anniversary. Because it was so successful, the nighttime light and video show is signed for five years and his team will be adding a winter Northern Lights show. 1608 also brought the founding of opera with Monteverdi’s Orfeo and Japanese Kabuki. Fascinated by kabuki, Lepage spent a lot of time in Japan in the 1990s. “The kabuki has all of the qualities of opera without the singing,” he explains. “It does have music and the way the Japanese speak, the technique is actually close to singing. But I’m interested in the codes of traditional Japanese theatre for the same reasons I’m interested in theatre.”


Although Lepage was always interested in opera because of its hyper-theatrical characteristics, his breakthrough came in 1993 with the Canadian Opera Company’s double bill of Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Never having done opera before, he was reluctant to accept constant offers of Wagner’s Ring cycle. “I wanted to start with something simple, without chorus and extras, and the COC came up with this idea requiring only three singers, and lots of time to rehearse,” says Lepage. He was immediately hooked. He quickly learned that working with singers was entirely different. “With actors you really have to start from scratch because often they don’t know their lines and it’s usually better that way. But in the opera, people come in knowing all the music, all the words and they’re completely open to your vision.”

Lepage believes that theatre has become problematically cinematic in that “people on stage very often act as if they were in a close-up while the people in the audience don’t actually see any of that. The 20th century was a lot about trying to act like film actors on stage and it just doesn’t work.” He likes it that opera, instead of imitating cinema, rather exaggerates and intensifies every action: “Opera is about big gestures. The opera houses, singers and their voices, and the themes are all larger than life.” Theatre directors warned Lepage that working with singers would be difficult, but he learned that opera singers simply don’t move the same way that actors do: “If you understand they need support for singing, they will agree to move. Whatever concept you have, the singer’s voice is always the central monument, and you should accommodate the voice. My sets are designed to bounce the voices back.”

Having taken classical guitar lessons for two years, Lepage can read opera scores, which he uses as an essential guide for his artistic direction. “It’s a subliminal guide of the subtext of the ideas and themes. After working six weeks in a rehearsal room with piano, when you get with the orchestra, suddenly everything makes sense. It suddenly appears in all its glory. Sometimes we’re working on a scene and I wonder ‘Well why is Faust doing that?’ or ‘Why would he make this gesture instead of that?’ and when you don’t have the answer you just listen to the music.”

Lepage’s second opera was Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust in 1999, which he revived last year at the Metropolitan Opera and was seen on Live in HD. Frustrated with decreasing funding for film, Lepage created an opera division at Ex Machina in 2003 and brought in Bernard Gilbert as production manager. Lorin Maazel’s Nineteen Eighty-Four came next in 2005 and then Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, recently revived at La Scala.

Lepage continues to be fascinated by Stravinsky’s music – he returns to the COC in October 2009 for The Nightingale, adapted from a Hans Christian Anderson tale, yet another fascination. Lepage originally conceived The Nightingale as a fairy tale inspired by Vietnamese water puppets. He and puppet designer Michael Curry (of Lion King fame) placed the orchestra on stage to allow the orchestra pit to be filled with a pool of water, quite an innovation in opera. “The singers are waist-deep in water holding Vietnamese puppets,” he says. A contraption that resembles a fishing rod, creating the illusion of flight, will manipulate the nightingale. Since the opera is only one hour long, Lepage filled out the programme with the short 10-minute opera, The Fox, and a series of Stravinsky songs. Here, Lepage worked backwards to create a visual theme that develops throughout each work. Hand-shadow performers, creating two-dimensional images on a central screen, illustrate the opening songs. The Fox is illustrated by body and puppet shadow theatre that begins in two-dimensions and grows to become three-dimensional. After the intermission, The Nightingale proceeds entirely in three dimensions.

When Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb commissioned a new Wagner Ring to replace the now retired production, Lepage was ready. He promises to utilize new technologies while setting the opera in traditional times. He is returning to the original Scandinavian sagas that inspired Wagner’s operas, finding themes that are relevant to audiences today. “The Icelandic culture is very preoccupied with geology and global warming,” he says. “You have a god that represents rain and one that represents thunder, and another that represents fire so they’re very primitive, elemental incarnations and the themes of ecology and global warming and what men do with the elements is certainly there.” For Gelb, “the audience will be in for a great treat because Robert wants to respect the acoustic and musical environment the audience needs in order to enjoy the Ring.” The new Ring will premiere in Fall 2010 with Das Rheingold, followed by Die Walküre in Spring 2011. Siegfried and Gotterdammerung will be presented in 2011-2012, before the complete Ring at the end of that season.

Recently, Lepage has become involved in the newly announced Quebec International Summer Opera Festival in Quebec City set for 2011. Lepage envisions a festival similar to Salzburg’s, with both indoor and outdoor events, and an international audience. An opera festival budget would allow for larger-scale productions, such as Lepage’s The Rake’s Progress, which local companies are usually unable to afford. “I’d really like for people to see these shows. If you want the art of opera to survive in the 21st century you have to find an economic solution. It won’t survive if it continues to be something for the elite. If we’re going to get people addicted to opera we certainly need to make a big effort,” he asserts. “The people who do opera need subsidies from the government but they also need people from the opera milieu like myself who can afford to do an opera for free. I’m very faithful to that kind of thing.”

From music festivals to music education, Lepage is a strong believer in the necessity of the arts in society. He sees Quebec City as a “great incubator” for artistic growth and hopes that this can survive in the face of rapidly diminishing federal funding. “Quebec City is a place where people try stuff. Kids are coming out of the conservatories and they have these great ideas but it’s important that they have a space and a bit of money to try out their ideas, whether they’re good or bad. And that’s how you get special talent. You have to create incubators. Right now, that idea is going out the window and that’s not good,” he says.

What future projects does Lepage have in mind? “I’m interested in the tough stuff that people still don’t know what to do with, like Wozzeck. I mean, there have been too many good productions of Don Giovanni for me to try my hand at it. So I think I’ll leave that to others,” he explains. “I’m more interested in the things that haven’t been formed yet. I’m good at that!”


Blue Dragon
Natasha Gauthier

In Chinese lore, a different-coloured dragon symbolizes each season. In 1985, theatre wizard Robert Lepage premiered his groundbreaking Dragons’ Trilogy, inspired by the first three mythic beasts: green for spring, red for summer and white for autumn. Now, more than 20 years later, Lepage closes the cycle with Le dragon bleu/The Blue Dragon, which treads the nebulous frontier between sequel and epilogue. 

The play was performed in both a French and an English version at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in March. It stars co-authors Lepage and Marie Michaud, his longtime collaborator, who also co-wrote and performed in the original Dragons’ Trilogy. The pair is joined by Tai Wei Foo, a compelling young dancer and actor from Singapore.

As the program notes state, only one of Lepage’s many memorable characters has ever gone into permanent exile. At the end of The Dragon’s Trilogy, the restless Pierre Lamontagne leaves his friends and home in Vancouver to follow his dream of studying art in China.

The Blue Dragon is named for the dragon of winter: represented by lightening, and invisible as it hides under the snow, it symbolizes death and rebirth. When the play opens, we find Lamontagne (Lepage) working as a gallery owner and dealer in Shanghai’s thriving contemporary art scene. It’s been 20 years since he left Canada and he’s fluent in Mandarin, rides a bicycle everywhere, lives in an old converted warehouse, and has a modern young Chinese girlfriend, Xiao Ling (Foo). Lamontagne has also put his own painting career on hold to promote hip Asian artists who wield the latest technology like brushes.

Lamontagne receives a visit from Claire Forêt (Michaud), an old flame from his art-school days. Claire is a single, alcoholic, workaholic Montreal ad executive who has decided she needs a Chinese baby to complete her life. Her intrusion into Lamontagne and Xiao Ling’s lives, and indeed into the heart of contemporary China itself, with all its paradox and hyperbole, proposes some intriguing answers to the question that runs through much of Lepage’s œuvre: if you can’t go home again, what do you do when home tries to come back to you?

In his first lines, Lepage has Lamontagne say, “If a picture is worth a thousand words, in China, one word is worth a thousand pictures.”  You expect stunning, startling imagery to abound in any Lepage production, and The Blue Dragon doesn’t disappoint. Lamontagne’s split-level loft, with its Tintin-inspired décor, morphs magically into an airport, a nightclub, an art gallery and a train platform. Lamontagne paints his name in Chinese characters—“Stone Mountain”—on a giant video screen. Tai Wei Foo performs a series of gorgeous dance interludes, including a hilariously bombastic homage to the famous propaganda piece Red Detachment of Women.  

For most of this nearly two-hour work, the substance is as captivating as the style. Lepage favours economic language and narrative; he resists the temptation to fill in the past 20 years of these characters’ lives with flashbacks and long backstories. Like a master calligrapher, he provides the audience with a few deft lines and arcs that elegantly tell what is necessary without revealing all.

 Then, about 20 minutes before the end, Lepage inexplicably turns maudlin, unsubtle and trite. Adding a baby to the storyline apparently made the usually clear-eyed director hormonal. Sensitivity turns the corner into sentimentality. Much has been made about the “originality” of the play’s three alternate endings, presented back to back. To actually sit through them is an intensely irritating experience. It’s a cheap trick, and a clichéd one, and only makes Lepage and his co-creators appear undecided. Those unfortunate final scenes dull the brilliance of the 90 preceding minutes.

Wah Keung Chan
Lepage’s fascination with all aspects of the human voice has produced the riveting 9-hour Lipsynch, a multimedia theatre performance that links nine separate yet intertwining stories spanning seven decades. A seemingly curious event, a crying baby leading to the discovery of the death of a young mother on a transatlantic flight, is the impetus for the audience to peek into the lives of a cast of characters. Who is the dead woman? How does this event affect the opera singer who found her? What became of the child? It’s a morality tale infused with humour; stories to which everyone can relate. The most poignant story is that of Marie, a jazz singer, whose only remaining memories of her late father are from silent home movies. Her greatest wish to hear the sound of his voice is only realized when she accepts that her father’s voice is present in her own. Presented last June at Toronto’s Luminato Festival, the 9 hours went by quickly, a tribute to the story-telling, staging and acting. The complete Lipsynch makes its Montreal debut February 27 at the Denise-Pelletier Theatre.

Stravinsky’s The Nightingale, The Fox & Other Short Fables with the Canadian Opera Company. October 17 to November 5 at the
Four Seasons Centre. www.coc.ca

Lipsynch, February 27 to March 14, 2010 at the Denise-Pelletier Theatre. www.denise-pelletier.qc.ca

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