Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!
Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) composed during a phenomenal period of history in Germany. In his lifetime the country would undergo several turns against monarchic rule and spawn such thinkers as Marx, Nietzsche and Goethe. Being revolutionary was de rigueur. Wagner completed thirteen staged compositions, ten of which have been in repertoire in opera companies around the world ever since. His Der Ring Des Nibelungen is considered the hardest opera to sing, the longest and most complicated libretto to realize, and the most exhausting composition to conduct. It was and still is audacious.
I believe I may have sat through a dusty old Canadian Opera Company version of Die Walküre many years ago but I am not sure. My mother dragged us to various opera’s when we were young and sat uncomfortably for hours while resenting the other kids who didn’t have to go. I hated opera. I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t as much fun as it seemed in Bugs Bunny. To me opera was something a museum should put on not a contemporary stage.
But then I grew up and went to school and studied art. Suddenly the challenge of the art form that is opera was interesting. And the Ring, as it became to be known (opposed to The Lord of the Rings, another drab endless thing I had to read, but that is another blog) seemed the ultimate challenge. Theatre students are always fascinated by how something old gets retried and reinvented. We sat through many different ideas thrust on Shakespeare, so as far we were concerned Wagner was fair game.
Enter Robert Lepage. For those of you unfamiliar with him or his work, he is one of the great contemporary stage directors alive today. His work has influenced an entire generation of theatre artists (my hand high up on this one). And he is a proud Quebecois artist whose headquarters are located in his state of the art Ex Machina building in Quebec City. I’ve seen many of his productions including some early work done long before he could hire a private jet and hang out with Al Pacino. His one man show: Needles and Opium remains one of the best things I’ve ever seen. Its hallucinogenic mash up of Miles Davis and Jean Cocteau created imagery that will never erase from my memory. I am a huge fan.
In the last several years, Lepage has taken on film making and work with Cirque de Soliel to augment his wide array of visionary ideas. These commercial forays, while sneered at by many in the ‘real’ art world, have been practical undertakings so that he could create with million dollar budgets. In Canada it is virtually impossible to make a career for yourself in theatre if you have big visions and want to do work that is internationally sought after – there just isn’t the money. Many theatre people in this country choose very commercial projects so that they can finally work with machinery that can make their dreams come true. It’s not selling out; it’s smart.
Lepage is now internationally known for two things: staging the greatest version of Der Ring Des Nibelungen or staging the worst version of Der Ring Des Nibelungen. The Met hired him early in the 21st century in a daring move to reinvent the company for a new generation of audiences raised on action movies and 3D special effects. Frankly I applaud their moxy. Who the hell else would you get at this point who could experiment so audaciously?
A new PBS documentary follows Lepage’s experiment through all four operas of the Ring cycle and the enormously complicated and crazy technological corner he painted himself into. It is one of the best documentaries about staging a theatre show you are ever likely to see. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. My guess is that it might rival his actual productions.
His biggest problem or breakthrough, depending on your Wagnerian point of view, was to make the stage a huge folding set of planks that move throughout each of the four operas that compose the entire Ring cycle. The set actually transforms itself with video and shape to suit the story. Each of the four operas use the same set, a many planked design evoking a Scandinavian aesthetic; at one point it looks like a Viking ship, at another a set of Ikea shelves.
The performers would have to find their way across this undulating thing and be able to perform and sing the hardest score ever written. Lepage used acrobat doubles for the Gods (a great band name if I ever heard one) and other pivotal characters when making them fly or swim. The set was so heavy that they had to reinforce the Met’s foundation under its stage. What outrageous hubris and insane arrogance! Two things that make great theatre!!
I haven’t seen the productions or even the cinematic feeds that were live at local movie houses. This documentary gives you a great chance to see what Lepage created and why it does and doesn’t work. The jury is still out, for every naysayer like the New Yorker there are those who thought it was amazing. Personally I would probably only like the staging as I still have an off putting feeling when it comes to opera – but I would of gone had I the cash.
Months ago in my former column, I called for artists to show some audacity toward convention. Today after seeing this documentary I can happily say that audacity is alive and well, and it took one of the hoariest, oldest institutions in North America to make it happen. Hiring Lepage, a grand experimenter who often says his work is never finished, to fashion the cult of Wagner for a new breed of dwindling opera goers was a truly bold move and one we should all feel inspired by.