Canadian theatre visionary Robert Lepage has always swung between supersized spectacles and exquisite small-scale works. This month, he’ll unveil the final instalment in his high-tech staging of Wagner’s Ring cycle for New York’s Metropolitan Opera. And in Toronto, he’s opening The Blue Dragon on Jan. 10 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.
Lepage talked to The Globe about his intimate 2008 play, a love triangle involving an expatriate Québécois art dealer (Henri Chassé), his Chinese artist girlfriend (Tai Wei Foo) and his long-ago lover (Marie Michaud), set against the backdrop of a changing China.
The Blue Dragon is a belated spinoff to your first major work, 1985’s The Dragons’ Trilogy, which ended with the artist Pierre Lamontagne leaving Quebec for China. Why did you decide it was time to revisit that character and the subject of China?
When we did The Dragons’ Trilogy, China was a big, mysterious piece of rock that we never thought would even move. It was impenetrable, impossible to deal with. And then suddenly there was this thaw, this opening up on some levels. By trying to know what’s happened to Pierre Lamontagne, now that he’s 50 and in a midlife crisis, you realize that China is also going through the same process. That was the impression Marie [Michaud, the play’s co-writer]and I had when we went to Shanghai in, was it 2008? A lot of the artists there were expressing these questions: Where do we go now? And are we allowed to go there? China was just feeling its way.
Asia has figured a lot in your past work – in the plays The Dragons’ Trilogy and The Seven Streams of the River Ota, and in your films Nô and Le Confessional. Where did that interest come from?
I’ve always had a passion for geography. Even at a very young age. In Grade 2, when we had to do a presentation in front of the class, I’d always do things about Ireland or Italy. I could draw maps, I could name all the capitals, I was completely drawn to other lands. I discovered with time that it’s a thirst for other people, for otherness, for something fascinating and mysterious. And the most foreign thing to our culture back then was China. That for me was the big mystery to try to pierce.
The Blue Dragon was partly inspired by one of Hergé’s classic Tintin comics, The Blue Lotus. Did that book also feed your fascination with the East?
Oh, definitely. Middle-class kids of my generation, our first contact [with Asia]– probably the first book we ever read – was The Blue Lotus. Your parents would buy you Tintins because they knew you’d learn how to read that way. So the first impression we had of China was this 1930s comic – Japan invades Nanjing; the bad Communists; the bad Japanese!
The Blue Dragon has recently been turned into a graphic novel. Speaking of which, you also appear in an upcoming film version of Martin Villeneuve’s graphic books Mars et Avril, which are set in Montreal in the near future.
Martin is an amazing young thinker. The thing that appealed to me the most is that it’s the first time in Quebec that a work tries to project ourselves into the future. We have a tendency in Quebec – and I include myself in this – to describe ourselves using the past. We’re always nostalgic. And this guy has the courage to say, “Yeah, but what happens 50 years from now?” He’s made a very beautiful, poetic science-fiction film about Montreal and I find that very courageous and surprising.
When your Gotterdammerung opens at the Met on Jan. 27, you’ll have scaled the Mount Everest of operatic works. Is there another prodigious classic you want to direct next? Goethe’s Faust, maybe?
No. After completing a Ring cycle, you want to do something with just a chair and an acoustic guitar. [Laughs]And maybe a candle.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
The Blue Dragon runs Jan. 10-Feb. 19 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto.