note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Lynn Heinemann
Recipient of this year’s McDermott Award at MIT, French Canadian director/writer/filmmaker/actor Robert Lepage is renowned for his use of cinematic special effects and new technologies in his works for the stage. His techno-wizardry includes elaborate sets with multiple moving parts and dimensions, digital projections, and scenic effects which enhance and magnify performance and staging.
For a new groundbreaking production by New York’s Metropolitan Opera of Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle, Lepage created a technically sophisticated set. Its centerpiece is a monumental platform for digital projections and scenic effects dubbed “The Machine,” whose planks rise, fall, ripple, or splay around a central axis to create dramatic simulations of Wagner’s imaginary cosmos.
And yet, as he pronounced in a conversation at MIT with Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb titled “Technology in Stagecraft and Storytelling,” “We’re in a world of razzamatazz. We’re bombarded by special effects… But in the theater we can rely on the audience’s imagination… The important thing is to have confidence in the intelligence of the audience… I rely on the audience’s thirst for fantasy.”
As evidenced by his production of the “Ring” Cycle and in “The Andersen Project,” recently seen in Boston as part of Emerson College’s World on Stage series, the most important element in Lepage’s work is the storytelling.
While his sets play with perspective using cinematic illusion and often require actors acquainted with suspended acrobatics (according to Gelb, the Met’s “Ring” Cycle is the first time the opera has employed stunt doubles), mood and plot are also advanced through ancient forms of stagecraft such as shadow puppetry.
The free-wheeling conversation included a selection of wonderfully structured video clips from the Met’s production, showing computer animations of how that set was conceived and designed as well as performance footage (well illustrating Lepage’s creativity as well as the actors’ daring and nerve). These clips of the opera’s ultra-modern high-tech computerized gadgetry contrasted nicely with scenes from Stravinsky’s “The Nightingale,” where low-tech elements including flooding the orchestra pit to allow for elaborate water puppets.
I‘ve always been an artist who’s had trouble defining myself,” said Lepage, who’s been an actor and director for stage, film, and music tours by Peter Gabriel. In addition, he’s created two productions for Cirque de Soleil and “The Image Mill,” a spectacular architectural illumination and urban projection created in Quebec City to celebrate the city’s 400th anniversary.
“There’s always a question of finding who tells what part of the story,” Lepage observed. In seaming together a production, he noted that one of the most important questions is, “What’s redundant?”
Today’s audiences, he noted, want something more from theater and something more from film. “These two worlds are cousins of each other,” he asserted, while noting that opera is a good place for the meeting of these worlds since it is a “larger than life way of telling the story.”
“As they say in Buddhism,” he told the MIT audience, “obstacles are your friends. And I’ve made lots of friends.”
Even with his involvement in so many projects happening worldwide, Lepage is excited to take on new challenges.
“Retirement is not an option,” said Lepage, who doesn’t fear new challenges. When asked to participate with a dance company in Australia, he was surprised to find he wasn’t being asked to direct or choreograph, but to perform. “I was 35 pounds heavier and I thought, this is suicidal, but why not,” he said, as he compared himself to an accordion squeezing into his Alexander McQueen tuxedo for the performance.
“I like being surprised,” he said. “If someone offers you the chance to climb Mount Everest, you do it.”