First published in The Herald on 22 January, 2014
AndrÃ© Barbe is chuckling about the fact that art, for all its universality, can still be downright culturally relative. â€œIn the UK our work is considered quirky,â€ he says. â€œIn North America we’re considered very avant garde, in France we’re considered North American with culture. In Germany they see our stuff and say ‘finally! Not Regietheater!’. He gives a very Gallic shrug, as if to imply that culture critics are all daft anyway. â€œWe don’t really care what they call us. It’s the audience that matters.â€
Barbe is a Quebecois opera designer and one half of Montreal’s Barbe & Doucet production duo; the other half is his husband, the French director Renaud Doucet. Since the pair met at L’OpÃ©ra de MontrÃ©al in 2000 they haven’t accepted any work apart. They come as a double-act or nothing, a joint brand in which design and dramaturgy are inextricable. It’s both an artistic vision and a life decision: if they were going to make their relationship last in an industry that involves long periods away from home, they decided that they would simply have to work together or not at all.
â€œAny couple needs a project, whether it’s a kid or an industry,â€ says Barbe. â€œWe don’t have kids. This is our project.â€
The consequence is that the work of Barbe & Doucet has a trademark aesthetic as well as conceptual thrust â€“ so much so that they also always work with one lighting designer, Guy Simard. â€œIf we speak about blue to Guy, he knows the kind of blue we mean,â€ says Doucet. â€œHe’s a key part of our house style.â€
So what is that house style? Anyone who saw the bling-drenched, gilt-framed, frilly-costumed Manon they created for Scottish Opera in 2009 will get the picture. By their own description their productions are ‘fun’, ‘accessible’ and â€“ that riskiest of adjectives â€“ ‘popular’.
â€œYes!â€, says Doucet, leaning across the table intently. â€œWe want our audiences to have a good time. If somebody takes the effort to buy tickets, to dress up, to pay for the nanny, they don’t do that to be miserable. They do that because they want to have a good night. So the minimum we can do is to put ourselves in their seat and think ‘would I enjoy this?’â€
The couple often go to shows on Broadway or the West End â€“ to research what works by way of popular entertainment, they say. In Glasgow they tried a pantomime (Aladdin at the King’s) in order â€œto see what speaks to audiences here,â€ says Barbe. Inordinate amounts of sexual innuendo, it turns out? â€œWell sure, but it’s important to know what is the popular medium.â€
Barbe and Doucet are back in Glasgow for Scottish Opera’s new production of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and, unusually for an industry that tends to keep its creative concepts under wraps until opening night, they’ve made no secret of what the look and style of their production will be.
The setting is 1960s Rome. The cantankerous Don Pasquale owns a seedy hotel that is managed by his wayward nephew, Ernesto. Norina is Ernesto’s mouthy girlfriend, Malatesta is Pasquale’s allergy doctor, the chorus is a stream of travellers checking in and out of the hotel.
â€œWe wanted to find a time in history when Norina would have stood up for herself,â€ Doucet explains. â€œIn the ’60s women were taking charge. The clash of generations is also crucial in this opera â€“ the fact that Pasquale is out of touch with the younger characters and that they play around and take advantage of him. The dramatic shift in attitudes and behaviours that happened in the 1960s seemed to fit.â€
â€œPlus we wanted to keep it in Rome because it’s raining in Scotland and people need to see some sun!â€
For the most part their production looks set to be a fairly straightforward updating â€“ nothing too conceptual, and certainly not Regietheater. But Barbe & Doucet have added one significant new dimension to the plot: their Don Pasquale is obsessed with cats. â€œWe thought of the idea because cats are everywhere you look in Rome,â€ says Doucet. â€œIt’s very normal to see older people petting them and feeding them. The sad irony in our story is that Pasquale is in love with cats and yet also extremely allergic to them.â€
It’s a poignancy intended to reveal a more tender side to a character who is often portrayed as the classic buffoon. Renaud and Doucet are both adamant that Pasquale is not simply the stock Pantalone figure of commedia dell’arte â€“ indeed that stereotypes don’t apply to any of the opera’s characters. Because although this opera is above a comedy, they underline their intention to bring out its inherent social commentary. â€œWe know some elderly people in France who live with two cats and two dogs and prefer the company of animals than of human beings,â€ says Doucet. â€œAnimals don’t judge. They’re generous. There’s a reason that Pasquale, who knows he is out of touch with young people, is drawn to them.â€
Barbe sees the opera as a chance to examine how contemporary Western society treats the elderly. â€œThe global population is getting older and we don’t know what to do about it. Having lived through the death of both my parents and seen how people can be treated in retirement houses â€“ well, we wanted to make it clear that Pasquale isn’t simply a bad person. The younger generation laugh at him, but they’re not malicious either. Sometimes they realise they go to far. Nothing is black and white in this opera.â€
A serious message, then, beneath the fun and Roman sun. How does the social commentary fit with the Barbe & Doucet house style? When I ask what criteria lies behind the productions they take on, they tellingly respond, in unison, that any opera they work on â€œhas to be a really good theatre play.â€ They’re text junkies, they tell me with a laugh: they like nothing better than working with a libretto that could stand up without any music at all. â€œWhen the play is good we can have fun,â€ Doucet sums up. â€œWhen the play is weak we can only put the cream on top of the cake. If the cake is not good it might look pretty, but it’s not gonna be tasty. Don Pasquale? Very tasty.â€
Barbe & Doucet’s new production of Don Pasquale is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, January 24 â€“ February 1, and at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, February 18 – 22