'I feel very, very humble about all this," Robert Lepage was saying Thursday morning on the phone from a snow-bound studio space in Quebec City, the place of his birth, the home of his Ex Machina company and the incubator of his vast and varied creative output.
"All this" is winning the Glenn Gould Prize – the internationally renowned stage director, playwright, actor and filmmaker had been named the 10th laureate less than an hour earlier at a media conference in Toronto. Started in 1987 by the Glenn Gould Foundation, the $50,000 prize, overseen by a seven-member jury, originally was awarded every three years but now it's handed out every two, as always to a living artist whose "unique lifetime achievement contribution has enriched the human condition."
Lepage is the fourth Canadian to take the international honour – the others have been Leonard Cohen, R. Murray Schafer and Oscar Peterson – and, at 55, the youngest.
Often when an individual claims humility in the face of terrific triumph, there can be a pro forma quality to the gesture, especially coming from someone as lauded and loved as Lepage. The honoree, however, sounded sincere in his gratitude, genuine and even "shocked" (his word). Although he mounted his first multi-media theatrical production, Circulations, almost 30 years ago, he confessed he still sees himself as "a young, struggling artist, trying to make my point." Getting the Gould now, at what he laughingly indicated was a sort of "mid-life crisis," serves as "a kind of confirmation … a good slap on the back," indicating that perhaps he has some creditable accomplishments. He was particularly pleased by the composition of the 2013 jury – it included singer-songwriter-poet Patti Smith, essayist-novelist John Ralston Saul, film director Deepa Mehta, Hong Kong philanthropist Sir David Tang and record producer Bob Ezrin – since it represented "people from all walks of life, all categories [of the arts]."
Five members of the jury, including its chair, Paul Hoffert, head of the Bell Broadcast and New Media Fund, attended the Thursday announcement and, to a person, they lauded Lepage's restless creativity, his risk-taking and his fearless "experimenting in public" as key factors in why he prevailed over the roughly 100 other candidates on the long list. Indeed, Lepage still likes to describe one of his most famous stage works, the seven-hour The Seven Streams of the River Ota, as "unfinished" even though it has been mounted here and abroad many times since its 1994 debut.
Certainly the man hasn't lacked for knocks. Last spring his $16-million production of Wagner's Ring cycle for the Metropolitan Opera in New York prompted a storm of abuse from critics and conservative Wagnerians. Alex Ross of The New Yorker, for one, called the technologically ambitious show "pound for pound, ton for ton, the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history," while Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times said he found it "the most frustrating opera production I have ever had to grapple with." More recently, critics in London have been knocking one of Lepage's newest creations, Playing Cards 1: Spades, the first in-the-round instalment of a planned tetralogy that had its North American premiere at last year's Luminato festival in Toronto.
In his risk-taking, Lepage is very much like the late Gould who, for all the universal approbation he received for his interpretations of the Bach repertoire, was pilloried when his pianistic imagination took him to the oeuvres of Mozart and Beethoven. Lepage is Gouldian as well in his quick adaptation to and use of new technologies, just as Gould surmised that the recording studio had usurped the concert hall as the best place to realize the musical arts. Further, Lepage sees himself as being very much a northern artist in the Gould vein – determined, for all his successes in Germany, France, Italy and Japan, to remain rooted in Canada where "you can feel a bit on the outskirts of the traffic" in big ideas and art movements, yet "very, very privileged" to be in sufficient proximity "to consider those ideas."
"I believe there is such a thing as a culture of the North," he observed. "And as I was walking to work this morning, trying to fight my way though the heavy blizzard that had invaded my fair city, I could somewhat sense [Gould's] presence in the howling wind and the vanishing footsteps I was clumsily following in the snow."
Lepage can be as demanding of an audience as Gould, yet he has a strong populist side. It was Lepage, after all, whom pop star Peter Gabriel chose as the co-creator for both his Secret World stage tour of 1993-94 and 2002's Growing Up tour. It was Lepage whom Cirque du Soleil consulted in 2004 and again in 2010 to conceive and direct, respectively, Ka (its acclaimed Las Vegas stage show, still running at the MGM Grand) and TOTEM, a touring production. And it was Lepage's Hitchcock-themed first film, 1995's Le Confessionnal, that won him best-picture honours at the 1996 Genies.
"Well, maybe I did accomplish something in some way," he acknowledged with a chuckle Thursday. Many somethings in the eyes of Gould juror John Ralston Saul, who said: "Here's someone who, in half his life, has done more than most people could ever dream of doing!"