It’s been years since I’ve been this entertained by a fairy tale. I’m on the edge of my cushy seat as I watch an actress make her dramatic entrance out of the belly of a gigantic stove, oddly perched at an angle. Then another woman appears in an enormous retro-style television, à la Lucille Ball, breaking into song onstage. Everything about the set is so jumbo-size, it’s as if the actors had downed Alice in Wonderland’s shrinking potion before time travelling into a 1950s kitchen. Later, when the curtain rises on the set of an extraordinary snack bar, the crowd spontaneously breaks into thunderous applause. But the highlight of the show comes when a crew of actors, all dressed up as Mr. Clean, starts serving the audience popcorn.
No, I’m not in a movie theatre or at the Cirque du Soleil. This is the premiere of Cendrillon by Jules Massenet, staged by the very serious Opéra de Montréal – only this Cinderella was reworked by the Canadian duo André Barbe and Renaud Doucet into a cross between Grease and a Disney movie. Originally developed for the Opéra national du Rhin, the production has spurred such high demand for the pair that just perusing their schedule is enough to make your head spin: nine productions last year alone, a full slate in 2011 and much of 2012 already booked, not to mention the slew of projects currently in development for some of the world’s biggest opera companies.
With the man to my left in stitches over the antics of Cinderella’s wicked stepmother, I figure that if Jules Massenet were still alive, he’d be the first to ask for more popcorn (which I myself do – twice). With this sort of iconoclastic production, Barbe and Doucet – spiritual sons of the great Robert Lepage – are solidifying Canada’s already enviable place on the world’s opera stage. Just a few days later, Doucet proudly shows me an opera encyclopedia that devotes a full page to their production of Benvenuto Cellini, staged a few years ago in Strasbourg. And what do we find by chance on the next page? An entry devoted to The Damnation of Faust as imagined by... Lepage.
André Barbe hands me a sketch of a costume he designed for the witch in Rusalka, the tragic opera by Antonín Dvořák, produced last fall at Vienna’s famed Volksoper. (The company has such faith in Barbe and Doucet that they get to choose the productions they want to work on – an almost unheard of scenario in the hierarchical world of opera.) “We created flexible 10-inch LED screens that two actors wore under their costumes,” says Barbe. “In the show, the witch gives Rusalka a potion to make her human, and we wanted to see the ingredients drop into her stomach. Later Rusalka is transformed into a will-o’-the-wisp, and her costume, in addition to having screens in the front and back, was equipped with LED strips showing other projections that I designed.”
I’m with the couple in their quiet townhouse in Montreal, on the edge of Rivière des Prairies, where most of the first floor has been converted into a studio. This is where their professional collaboration first took shape. “After years of working together on and off, we realized there was a demand for our ideas,” explains Barbe, who handles the sets and costumes while his partner mans direction and choreography. (A former lead dancer, Doucet made his stage debut as a student at the Opéra de Paris dance school. “I was going to get to meet Nureyev! But they cut me because I was short and fat,” he says with a laugh.)
Their collaborative process allows them to deliver turnkey concepts to the companies that hire them. “It’s fairly unusual in opera,” says Doucet. “Robert Lepage, of course, has his creative centre. And there have been famous duos like Robert Carsen and James Conlon. But our way of working is still pretty unique.”
From his desk, Doucet scoops up the annotated score for La Cenerentola, the Rossini opera about Cinderella (her again!), which the duo will present in May at the Hamburg Staatsoper. Even though I read music, I can’t make head or tails of the massive manuscript. “The last time we went to meet the Royal Opera people in Stockholm, I gave them a score for Samson et Dalila that was so well planned out, they asked me if I’d already done the show somewhere else,” recalls Doucet. “I answered that I was simply ready – and that they had a year to learn it!”
The task was made all the more daunting by the setting. While the opera as originally conceived by Saint-Saëns takes place in biblical times, Barbe and Doucet’s Samson et Dalila is set in the modern-day Middle East and addresses the role of the media in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and its social consequences. “We don’t choose sides, obviously,” says Barbe. Though transposing operas to modern settings isn’t new, the duo’s idiosyncratic point of view is what makes this production different – just as it did in their 2005 staging of The Sound of Music, which premiered in Vienna. (The Sound of Music Companion, a book that traces the musical’s history, devotes a chapter to their daring production.) “The Sound of Music is controversial in Austria,” says Barbe. “Talking about a family that left the country for political reasons, about the Anschluss, can cause quite a stir. The European press said our production forced the country to confront its schizophrenic past.”
Once the audience is plied with popcorn, the fairy godmother settles into an enormous red convertible to watch a film at a drive-in. A screen is lowered, and we see black and white images of couples, smiling during their wedding ceremonies. Then the title of the next movie segment appears: “The Marriage of Pierrette and Marcel.” I know this is an important moment for André Barbe. The week before, as we watched a rehearsal together, he’d told me that this sequence was drawn from his parents’ wedding footage. “When we did the show in New York in 2007, it was poignant because my father had just died. I would have liked for my mother to be able to see it here in Montreal, but she’s too frail.”
As I applaud the happy marriage of Cinderella to her Prince Charming, I realize that the show is a perfect metaphor for Barbe and Doucet’s work. Though their productions reinterpret opera according to modern tastes, the poetry of each story remains integral and eternal, no matter how it’s told or what new technology is behind the costumes and the staging. Which, of course, makes sense: Every Cinderella has the right to live happily ever after, whether it’s in the 1950s or today.
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