Dream Scream

Robert Lepage unveils a dark empire at Seattle Opera.

By Thomas May January 15, 2009 Published in the February 2009 issue of Seattle Met

Psyched out: Lepage’s Erwartung design could frighten Freud.

For Robert Lepage, a bare stage at Shakespeare’s Globe and today’s high-tech multimedia spectacles are part of the same endeavor. “You try to produce miracles—when space and time suddenly become about something else,” he says. “And the miracles come out of the machine.”

Lepage is the Quebecois phenomenon who’s been at the forefront of the performing arts avant garde for the past two decades. He chose Ex Machina (literally, “out of the machine”) as the name for his boldly innovative production company, which brings together traditional theater artists and experts at emerging stage technologies. Lepage acts, directs, writes—for stage and film—and possesses a unique flair for production design. His output boasts performance art, solo plays and even architectural installations.

This month, Seattle Opera presents his internationally acclaimed work with two one-act operas from the early twentieth century: Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung (Expectation) by Arnold Schoenberg. Bluebeard recounts a terrifying folk tale of serial murder; Erwartung unfolds as the tense monologue of a demented woman who has just killed her lover. “These two works come out of the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire,” Lepage explains. “Bluebeard is about the darkness at the end of an empire, while Erwartung opens a new chapter, with the sudden interest in Freud, in the psyche and its demons.”

The pairing marked Lepage’s debut as an opera director: He first staged this double bill in 1993 for the Canadian Opera Company. It proved to be a transforming experience. “The big discovery was that opera is always about stuff that is larger than life,” he remarks. “Theater should be that, but often we end up doing what we call merely ‘drama.’”

Seattleites got their first exposure to Lepage’s richly imagist style with The Far Side of the Moon, a one-man show revolving around simultaneous personal and cosmic journeys that—via some ingenious scenic work with mirrors—featured him “floating” across the stage of the Moore in 2003. Just last fall he introduced the Metropolitan Opera to its first interactive visual technology with a phantasmagoric production of Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust: The gestures, vibrations, even body heat of the singers and orchestra triggered video projections to flash and loom like hallucinations on screens built into the set. Illusionistic legerdemain is not an end, however, but a vehicle for Lepage’s intuitive sense of beauty. “I’m interested in machinery not because of the gadgets but because I think you can squeeze amazing poetry out of technical problems,” he says. “The evolution of stagecraft in general says a lot about our preoccupations as storytellers.”

In the Met’s 2010–11 season, Lepage and Ex Machina will unveil a highly anticipated new production of Wagner’s Ring cycle, an epic with a sound large enough to inhabit whatever world emerges from Lepage’s unfettered imagination. “The voice is all about screaming—beautiful, controlled screaming though it is,” he says, “and what they scream about has to deserve to be screamed.”

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