Robert Lepage is Canada’s most celebrated stage director. He has created shows for companies ranging from Cirque du Soleil (Kà, Totem) to the Metropolitan Opera, which premiered the first part of his innovative take on Wagner’s Ring Cycle last month. Based in Quebec City, where he founded the multi-disciplinary company Ex Machina, Lepage is also an actor, playwright and filmmaker. Two of his creations come to Toronto this fall. The Andersen Project, a one-man show that has toured four continents, will be mounted by Canadian Stage at the Bluma Appel Theatre from Oct. 21-30. Taking over the role originated by Lepage, Yves Jacques plays an albino artist from Quebec commissioned by the Paris Opera to adapt an obscure fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. A production of Eonnagata from London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre plays the Sony Centre on Nov. 18 and 19. Acting and dancing, Lepage plays Charles de Beaumont, an 18th-century diplomat, soldier and cross-dressing spy.
Q: The Andersen Project is about a Quebec artist at the mercy of a high-handed manager at the Paris Opera. That sounds like it could be you—is the satire autobiographical?
A: It’s a strange project. It was a commission from the 2005 Hans Christian Andersen bicentenary in Denmark. They did this big bash where they commissioned choreographers, writers, filmmakers and directors to stage Andersen’s fairy tales. And I had been specifically asked not to do that, but to do something about him. I said I’d do it if it could be about me also. I started to read the biographies, which were a bit boring. And then I read Andersen’s personal diary, and he had all these little markings every time he masturbated. Tons of these little markings. I thought, “Oh my God, this guy is a masturbator!” He writes children’s tales, and we have an image of this tall, naive nerd who is inoffensive and all about fantasy, and actually he was very much about sexual fantasies.
Q: How did that go over with the Danes?
A: They were a bit concerned. [laughs] It was quite tricky. When I got to explain the project to the commissioner of this event, he said, “Oh that sounds very good.” Then he had to go see the queen of Denmark—he had to report to her on the content of every project. But she was very cool. She found it interesting because everybody had the tendency to put Andersen on a pedestal.
Q: What does this sexually eccentric side of Andersen have to do with his work?
A: It’s intimately connected. When you’re a child, before the discovery of sexuality, fairy tales are there to help you fantasize and make you a creative being, and eventually when sexuality awakens, that takes over from fairy tales. For me that was a key to understanding Andersen. Of course, he was completely gay. We would want him to be bisexual, because that’s what we all say when we’re gay and we don’t want to come out yet. He did the same thing and tried to convince himself for a long time that he was bisexual. He was platonically in love with this opera singer, Jenny Lind, whom he called the nightingale of the north, and that’s why he wrote The Nightingale, which I got to stage recently. We tend to forget that in those days before the Internet and HBO and Imax and 3-D cinema, opera was the thing. Opera and theatre. If you were a man of the world and you mingled among the happy few, you would be at the opera.
Q: How did you connect Andersen’s world to your own experience with opera companies?
A: The only way was to mimic what I’d just been asked to do. So I tried to create a character who had been commissioned to create a libretto based on an obscure Andersen fairy tale for the Paris Opera. And I had a lot to say about the Paris Opera. [laughs] After the Canadian Opera Company—which was my first experience in opera and was very generous and family-like—when you work with the big international circuit of opera houses, it’s completely different. So it became about a Québécois character, a colonized Canadian, who gets to work in Europe and is manipulated by the artist-director.
Q: Staging the Ring Cycle for the Met—was that a show on an unprecedented scale for you?
A: Well, the Cirque du Soleil shows in Vegas are quite big. Even the touring Cirque shows are quite operatic in the way they’re constructed. Cirque du Soleil was a good rehearsal for this sort of thing.
Q: But the Ring is the Everest of operas, and yours is a hugely ambitious production full of technical wizardry. And it’s New York, so the critical scrutiny is on a whole other level, no?
A: To do something like this, part of you has to be a bit unmoved by good or bad criticism. Otherwise you can’t do anything. You’re just a pack of nerves. I remember halfway through the rehearsals meeting a reporter from the New York Times, who’s a really sweet guy, but conducts his interviews like murder cross-examinations. And at the end he said, “You’re so calm! You’re so calm!” I said, “Why should I be stressed? There’s a time to be stressed and feel crushed by all this, on opening night or the day before. But the rest of the time I have to enjoy it. And he said, “Yes, but don’t you realize where you are?” I said, “New York is important but it’s not the centre of the world, and somebody who thinks it’s the be-all and end-all hasn’t travelled a lot.” What we’re trying to do is audacious for New York and the Met, but it’s far from being audacious by European standards. I’m just happy that we got all the glitches corrected by the second performance.
Q: You’re referring to a mishap at the premiere of Das Rheingold, when the rainbow bridge to Valhalla malfunctioned at the climax. What goes through your mind at that point when you’re watching it?
A: Of course you go, ‘Oh s–t.’ But it was a good place for it to happen. Most of the people didn’t notice it, and some of the criticism we had was people thinking that we didn’t want the gods to cross the rainbow. Some people wrote amazing reviews finishing by saying they hated this vision of Valhalla. But the cue didn’t work, honey—come back and see it in the cinemas. It’s like sports events. You sprain your ankle playing hockey and it doesn’t make you a bad player. You were just unlucky. That’s the risk of doing something that’s not canned. But what can you do? Here in Quebec City, in one of those cinemas [broadcasting Das Rheingold live from the Met], halfway through, TSN appeared out of nowhere, and for three minutes people were watching the sports news. You want it to be perfect but it never is.
Q: How many projects have you got going?
A: There are a lot of things cooking, but they’re long-term projects. People think I have something opening every month, but it’s not true. I work for two weeks on a project, then let it cook for six months while I work on something else. I try to spread [them] over many, many years. The reality of opera forces you to do that. Singers are booked five or six years in advance. I have some projects booked up to 2016 because of that. Then there are big international gatherings and they want you to do an opening ceremony. That’s another five or 10 years. In the meantime, I try to do more humble theatre productions.
Q: Tell me about Eonnagatta.
A: That’s another kooky project. Sylvie Guillem is the best dancer in the world. She was the top star at the Paris Opera, then she slammed the door and went to the Royal Ballet in London, then reinvented herself as a contemporary dancer and started working with Russell Maliphant, a contemporary choreographer in London. We’d bump into each other from time to time. They said, “We like the way you work. We want you to dance with us.” I did a triple take. I was overweight and out of shape and didn’t feel confident. But I thought she’s going to whip my ass and it’s going to be good for me.
Q: And you play a cross-dressing spy?
A: He was a cross-dresser, but it’s unclear whether he was a man or a woman or had both sexes. It’s called Eonnagatta because Eon was the name of the spy but an onnagata is the actor who plays the woman in Japanese kabuki. There’s nothing camp about it. It’s this old patriarchal system of theatre that seemed to have the same rules as in Shakespeare’s time: only men can be observers of life and play both men and women. Theatre comes alive when someone cross-dresses onstage. I’m still trying to understand why.
Q: You’ve directed five movies. The last one, Far Side of the Moon, was seven years ago. Will we see another?
A: Well, I’m secretly doing something right now. But I don’t fit into the system. I’m not going to crawl and beg and explain what I want to do in front of Telefilm Canada, which will hire a specialist from some university who will explain to me how my project is dramaturgically wrong. They have this bundle of money and they have to find an excuse not to give it to you.
Q: With your reputation, you can’t get funding from Telefilm?
A: Come on. You’re only as good as your last movie, period. It’s a business. If you want to do art films you have to find another channel. I’ve been attempting to do that the last couple of years, but it means producing it an entirely different way and not relying on any money from the government. It’s the way I’ve been doing theatre for the past 20 years. There’s a point where you say, you’re not going to rely on public subsidies. Maybe we were wrong from the start to rely on that. The system is a monster and we were responsible for it.