It seems just right that the Montreal-based team of director Renaud Doucet and designer André Barbe should make their New York debut at New York City Opera with Cendrillon. While originally staged in 2003 for France's Opéra du Rhin in Strasbourg, the Doucet/Barbe take on Jules Massenet's setting of the classic French Cinderella story has its origins in a weekend road trip to New York City shortly after they got the commission. As they drove, they talked, and the idea of rethinking the piece as a 1950s-style parable of the American Dream was first conceived and then worked out in detail.
"We started from a vision of the 1950s as the last great romantic era," says Barbe. "It was a time when girls could dream of becoming princesses, as Grace Kelly actually did. That drive was seven hours down and seven hours up, and our approach to the production was pretty clear by the time we got back to Montreal. It was an amazing process."
That "amazing process" of developing a staging by first talking it through in fine detail has become the standard MO in a burgeoning professional relationship that's rare in opera. While it's not uncommon for directors to work repeatedly with particular designers, there have been few formal partnerships. But in 2000, the Montreal duo, who are partners in their personal lives, too, set up Barbe & Doucet to pool their respective backgrounds and offer theatres — opera companies almost exclusively — a package deal. Besides Cendrillon, their turnkey productions since they set up shop together have encompassed works as diverse as Puccini's Turandot and Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music (both for Vienna's Volksoper), as mainstream as Massenet's Thaïs (for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and l'Opéra de Montreal), and Berlioz's Benevenuto Cellini (for l'Opéra National du Rhin in Strasbourg), and as unusual as Adam's Si j'étais roi and Fauré's Penelope , for which Barbe won the Irish Times Irish Theatre Award for best set designer, (both for Ireland's Wexford Festival).
They have to date about a dozen productions to their joint credit, a number, including Cendrillon, lit by Montreal-based Guy Simard, who, although not formally a partner, they count as an essential member of the team. In every case, though, the process begins with the protracted discussion — Doucet dubs it "the tennis match" — that results in the kind of clear conceptual framework they had for Cendrillon after that road trip to New York. These days, the discussion is more likely to take place in the studio in the home they share in a quiet residential neighborhood near the river flowing along the top of Montreal Island, with music scores, reference books, and computers cluttered at hand. Barbe says he will not design until they have the conceptual framework in place. For Doucet, it's the absolutely necessary condition to forge a successful production in the finite — and sometimes very limited — time they're given to stage the piece. "We argue here a lot, but when we get to the theatre, it's all worked out," he says. "We're well prepared and in total control of the material. When we get to the theatre, we want no surprises."
The focus on preparation is born of long and varied experience in the performing arts. While Barbe & Doucet is a relatively new enterprise, both have résumés that stretch well back into the 1980s. Doucet, from Cannes in the south of France, had always had a love of music, and even studied flute at one time at the Paris Conservatoire. But he ended up as a professional dance soloist and choreographer, his extensive work in France and elsewhere in Europe encompassing Le Ballet National de Marseille (under Roland Petit) and the Ballet National de Nancy as well as the Folies Bergère and the Lido in Paris. In 1993, he moved to Canada to teach at the school of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal, where L'Opéra de Montréal also engaged him almost immediately as a choreographer. His first experience on the opera stage, however, had come a year earlier, when he was hired as choreographer and Baroque coach for a production of Massenet's Manon in Bilbao, Spain.
Coincidentally, Barbe also got his first big break in opera the same year. Based in Montreal, where he had studied at both Concordia University and the National Theatre School of Canada, he already had an impressive roster of credits as a designer for theatre, festivals, and television, and, almost as a sideline to combine his love of music and theatre, had also worked with the opera department of the city's McGill University. His work there caught the attention of Canadian conductor Timothy Vernon, who, in 1992, invited Barbe to design Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio for Pacific Opera Victoria, his company on Vancouver Island. Barbe continued to design sets for more than a dozen McGill and POV productions over the rest of the decade, then won a commission from L'Opéra de Montréal for sets for Katya Kabanova.
By this time, Doucet had pretty well switched his career focus from choreographer to stage director, and was working as the assistant to the company's Artistic Director, Bernard Uzan. "I was fascinated by André's designs for Katya," he says now of the production that seeded their creative relationship. Uzan obviously sensed the possibilities, too, advising them that they could go far in opera, and especially together. "Uzan," Doucet adds, "earmarked us as an entity."
For their first joint venture, Adam's Si j'étais roi for the Wexford Festival in 2000, Barbe only designed the sets, but then, to strengthen their selling proposition of offering theatres a package deal, returned to costume design, too. This gives the duo greater control over a staging, making sure every aspect of its visual form fully serves all those carefully talked out ideas about its content. If there's a unifying principle to their work together, it's perhaps only in their conviction that opera is important because, as Doucet explains it, "we are given a voice through it. It is our responsibility to do something with it."
A good part of that responsibility is to think through how a work written for another age can be presented in ways that touch the sensibilities of a contemporary audience. In today's opera world, though, touching contemporary sensibilities sometimes seems more like battering them with updated productions and conceptual overlays that only the stage director seems to understand. Neither Barbe nor Doucet shies away from the idea of changing storylines or settings — making what, as francophones, they call a "transposition" — but they are adamant that the resulting staging must focus the audience on the opera, not the creative team behind the production. "We don't want to do opera like some contemporary art exhibition where you need to read 12 pages to understand it," says Doucet. "If the show is good, the audience will notice the singers first, then the orchestra and then the staging."
Nevertheless, all those "tennis-match" talks about productions have resulted in some startlingly varied approaches to opera. The whimsical Cendrillon, for example, owes much to television, film, and popular culture in its evocation of 1950s suburbia. While French audiences responded well to its American flavor, American audiences will recognize its milieu more keenly. From the oversized gadgets in the surreal kitchen at the outset through the visual references to icons like Lucille Ball and advertising's Mr. Clean to the scene at the drive-in movie, the piece pushes the same nostalgic buttons as the popular Happy Days TV series.
Taking a quite different tack, a production of Turandot in Vienna presented audiences with a fantastical insect world that, Doucet explains, was in part inspired by the discovery of a legend that has the first Chinese evolving from a butterfly. And in what promises to be their most daring and certainly their most political "transposition" to date, currently in preparation for Sweden's Royal Opera in September 2008, they are recasting Saint-Saëns's Samson et Dalila as a story about Israeli-Palestinian relations over the past 60 years. "I don't think we limit ourselves to a particular style because in each case we're trying to serve the particular opera we're presented with," says Barbe. "These projects come to us as events, and we have to react to them. We have a responsibility to explore each one on its own."
Over the next couple of seasons, those explorations continue on both sides of the Atlantic. This season, they're working on productions of Gluck's Iphigénie en Aulide for l'Opéra National du Rhin, Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and Emmerich Kalman's operetta Die Csardasfürstin (The Gypsy Princess) for Austria's Kufstein Festival. Next season, besides the Samson in Stockholm, there will be a new Turandot for Opera Company of Philadelphia. Clearly, Barbe and Doucet — and lighting designer Guy Simard — have a great deal to talk about.
Wayne Gooding is the editor of Opera Canada magazine, based in Toronto.