Edinburgh Festival Day 12: Between rock and a hard place: If you want to bring opera to the people, says Robert Lepage, take a lead from stadium rock. Clare Bayley reports

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IN A black-and-white spotted shirt and black leather waistcoat, Robert Lepage arrives at his interview with a green ink stamp on the back of his hand from some Fringe gig the night before. You don't quite expect this from a man of his high cultural credentials, yet the French-Canadian director, considered by some to be the new Peter Brook, prides himself on being a man of the people. And while his Canadian Opera Company production of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle and Schoenberg's Erwartung is not an obvious choice to bring opera to a youth audience, the double-bill had teenagers queuing round the block in Montreal.

'That is one thing I feel really proud of,' he says. 'It's so strange that opera has always been seen as secluded and only for rich audiences of a certain class. It is an ideal art form, a Renaissance thing, a meeting-place for architects, visual artists, writers, musicians, and also for audiences and performers.'

Having turned down an offer to produce the Ring Cycle for Toronto's new opera house, Lepage was drawn to these two short operas because they are 'manageable'. Bluebeard's Castle (1911) is a two-hander in which Bluebeard shows his new bride Judith seven forbidden doors, which she opens in turn to find horrors and delights: a torture chamber, an armoury, a secret garden and so on. Erwartung ('expectation') is an expressionistic monodrama for solo soprano, with a libretto written by a Freudian analyst and poet, Marie Pappenheim. The opera tells of a woman running through a forest at night frenziedly searching for the lover she fears has deserted her or been killed. Whatever the conceptual difficulties of staging these operas, the practical difficulties, since they do not require a huge cast and chorus, are comparatively small.

'They are so different that they complete each other,' says Lepage. 'Bluebeard is an end of empire, pessimistic piece written in the belief that the old world was over and nothing could come out of the ashes. Erwartung is an analysis of a murder, the autopsy of something that's already dead.' For Lepage, Erwartung represents the beginning of an age when artists and thinkers sought to explore the subconscious.

Lepage's reputation as a theatre director derives partly from his radical integration of text, decor, music and performance, both in devised work and, more recently, with classic texts. With music or a 'soundscape' built into the original concept, works such as The Dragons' Trilogy have been described by some as scored rather than written. Why, then, has Lepage, like his contemporary Robert Wilson (who is also at this year's Festival with Dr Faustus Lights the Lights), turned to opera? Does opera as a form offer possibilities that theatre lacks? 'Opera has other problems,' says Lepage, 'but from the first day of rehearsals people are not talking, they are singing, often in a different language, and that means you have latitude to go beyond naturalism. The convention of falseness makes for a theatrical truth.'

The convention of falseness can perhaps be taken too far. Lepage's growing interest in technology in performance has led to criticism of design gimmickry at the cost of theatrical purity, notably with his mudbath Midsummer Night's Dream for the National Theatre. (A rock tour for Peter Gabriel gave him the perfect excuse to run riot: the result was a show fraught with technical problems as the set included telephone boxes, conveyor belts between stages, rotating screens and a suitcase into which the entire band disappeared.) Lepage, however, serenely denies that he is being lured on to the rocks of technology, and explains that, for the operas, he has returned to the original, simple staging.

'Bartok gives an indication in the libretto of how to stage Bluebeard: 'Judith opens door three and a shaft of green light comes into the room.' In 1911, the use of coloured light was very avant-garde. Since the Twenties, people have had gardens and plants coming on to the stage, but Bartok had the most wonderful, low-tech idea. With my staging we have tried to transform the light, to give it texture, but we never do a pageant as other people have done.'

For Lepage, the secret of the appeal and power of theatre lies in its potential as an event, and this is where his connections with the rock industry are brought to bear. 'Rock stars know that when a kid buys a dollars 50 ticket he wants to be part of an event,' he says. 'The operatic system should be eventful. It's a metaphorical language; it demands a bit of attention from the audience.' Teenagers, brought up on a diet of MTV and pop videos, are already fully literate in the convention of telling stories through music and visual images. 'We have to show that that can be achieved on stage as well, even if it's not popular music,' Lepage says.

Such events need meticulous planning. The Canadian Opera Company gave Lepage extra time for 'workshopping' the operas, but this leisurely, organic approach is not one that many opera companies can afford to offer. For Lepage, it is a prerequisite. To this end, he is setting up an international centre in Montreal for research and 'pre-production' work, a place where composers, writers and visual artists can experiment without the pressure of an opening night or the imminent arrival of a chorus of 15 international opera stars.

'People think different things take the same time to cook in a microwave. But they don't. For opera to be as eventful as theatre can be, it has to be flexible. We have to find ways for it to stay alive and grow, and not to be captured by the mould that stays the same for each production.'

'Bluebeard's Castle' and 'Erwartung': tomorrow and Sunday at the Playhouse, Greenside Place. Tickets: 031-225 5756

(Photograph omitted)