Puppetmasters Robert Lepage and Peter Gelb at MIT


Yesterday, director Robert Lepage and Met Opera-meister Peter Gelb conversed before an MIT public about the Met’s Ring. A spy in Boston sent me the following report of an event she described as “a mildly interesting but not terrifically insightful 90 minutes.”

She concluded, “My interpretation of their justification for their Ring is: Wagner wanted spectacle, and we’re the only ones who have the means and wherewithal to do it properly, so we’re bloody well going to do it, and any abstraction or symbolism would be compromise, and we don’t have to compromise, because we can do a perfect realization thanks to technology!”

The event was a 90-minute conversation between Gelb and Lepage, occasioned by Lepage’s receipt of the 2012 Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT. Lepage won this for his embodiment of the MIT mission in the arts, embracing innovation, risk-taking, and other values in keeping with MIT’s focus on engineering. Though the “controversy” over his productions was cited by MIT’s representative as evidence of Lepage’s risk-taking, Gelb joked, “I don’t know what controversy you’re talking about!” and followed up with some lame references to the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry – not smart in front of a Boston crowd.

Gelb asserted that he wants to reconnect the Met to the cultural mainstream by hiring “people with visionary ideas” to direct – like Lepage. “I believe in taking risks in order to change opera.” In the end, though, “storytelling is more important than anything else.” Lepage described opera as “great meeting point.” But, he said, today’s audiences have had their expectations set by film, and “in the 21st century, audiences want more from theater,” and he aspires to create a “dialogue” between different media. “I really truly still believe in opera,” he claimed, even though in his view it hasn’t been as accessible of late (means he hasn’t tried to access it -ed.). He added: ”The Ring reads like a film script—what he asks of us [stage directors] is a movie!”

As for that controversy, Gelb claimed that it has “come out of your [Lepage’s] choice to tell the story that Wagner wrote, not in an abstract metaphorical fashion.” Technology, Gelb said, can now realize Wagner’s demands in a way that was impossible during his lifetime, and has never been done before. He also asserted the empirically dicey factoid that “the public loves the production!”

The most interesting part of the event were when Lepage could exit propaganda mode and speak about his influences and ideas. After showing a few film clips of the Ring, Lepage described trips to Iceland, where he was interested in the geology, tectonic plates, and the moving ground of the Ring’s birthplace. He thus designed a stage – the Machine – that was “tectonic,” where the ground was constantly shifting.

The audience also watched a clip of Lepage’s Lyon Rossignol, to see Lepage’s interest in the “beginnings of technology and illusion” – the production uses shadow play and Vietnamese water puppets. “The human eye is always drawn to fantasy,” Lepage said, even when the means of the illusion are low-tech and easily visible. The technology for the Ring was developed first for the Cirque du Soleil show KÀ in Las Vegas. “All of these effects are there to be an echo of the performer,” Lepage said, “to magnify whatever the performer has done.” Meanwhile, the performers’ ability to play and interact with the set must be tempered by practical concerns, such as the need to maintain eye contact with the conductor.

After Lepage described his next project, “Playing Cards,” which takes place partially in Las Vegas, Gelb said, as if hip and cool, “We’re setting Rigoletto in Vegas next year!” Lepage replied, jokingly, “Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.” [PRICELESS.] Gelb pointed out that the downside of technology ”is that things do go wrong and you feel a bit helpless.” Lepage responded, “That’s part of the sport of theater!… it’s a living animal.” But, he continued, the Machine needs human interaction to run it, which makes it a form of puppetry.

A short question and answer session followed. One theater teacher asked Lepage to comment on where technology entered the process of creating a theater piece. Lepage responded that, unlike traditional theater, where technical side is only a factor at the end of the process, he puts the technology in the picture from the beginning. He aspires to break down the theatrical hierarchy that puts technicians at the bottom.

Meanwhile, one of Cambridge’s more colorful and crotchety residents said that he doesn’t like the technology at the Met and misses Zeffirelli. He thinks the “beauty of the art” is suffering because of all the electronics. Gelb defensively answered: “All art forms need to advance… We want for great storytelling directors to do their best work at the Met.” Lepage added that audiences’ perception of different technologies changes over time and the director needs to keep in mind “what the audience knows,” and what they will see in a given illusion.

Finally, Gelb had to run right after the event to catch a plane to New York so he would be there for Rheingold! (“Is that actually possible, with it ending at 6:30 and the opera beginning at 8:30?” asked my spy.) (I didn’t see him at Rheingold, but I wasn’t looking. -ed)

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  1. "Wagner wanted spectacle, and we're the only ones who have the means and wherewithal to do it properly, so we're bloody well going to do it, and any abstraction or symbolism would be compromise, and we don't have to compromise, because we can do a perfect realization thanks to technology!"

    This is annoying on so many levels. For starters someone should suggest them to WATCH the Valencia/Florence Ring staged by La Fura dels Baus. Then they might understand that: (1) others too can mount the spectacular Ring that is very technologically advanced BUT that remains very human in essence; (2) 'Spectacular' can and should be combined with 'dramatically valuable', and the technologically advanced productions can be structured intelligently with guiding ideas that could/should drive the dramatic action. Lacking ideas, sticking to the libretto could be fine [with the Ring that should be OK]; (3) The Met Ring is a failure NOT because there is no any ground idea, but because of the staggering theatrical incompetence of its director. Lepage was expected to visually refresh the Schenk Ring. What he did instead, he evacuated the drama or obstructed it by his contraption.

    Oh well… at least Parsifal will be good. 😉

    Sorry for reacting like this. Cheers

  2. We are all poorer for this production. What Gelb is doing at the MET runs more towards the theatre of the absurd.