André, we hope you are enjoying your Glyndebourne experience! How are you finding it so far?
I have been preparing this production for over two and a half years and have visited Glyndebourne many times during that period. To finally be here in this beautiful workplace is really special. There is a unique family feeling here and I have never collaborated with such dedicated teams before! It is truly a unique place. I am a country lover and to be in Sussex in the middle of summer is a privilege.
Could you tell us a little bit about the life of a costume and set designer. How did you start out?
I studied set and costume design at the National Theatre School of Canada, graduating in 1986. I was lucky enough to design a lot for theatre, television and variety and strangely enough my first opera was The Magic Flute in Montreal, followed by The abduction from the Seraglio at Pacific Opera Victoria in British Columbia, both works by Mozart. I did not know then that my life would be so much on the road, traveling and creating new productions in Canada, the USA and Europe. In 2000, while doing a new production of Katya Kabanova by Janáček at L’Opéra de Montréal, I was introduced to Renaud Doucet and we were asked to create a new production of Pelléas et Mélisande. Renaud then asked me to do Si J’étais Roi by Adolphe Adam for the Wexford Opera Festival, and so began a soon-to-be 20-year collaboration both on and off stage.
What is it like working with your partner, stage director and choreographer Renaud Doucet?
It’s easier in some ways as being a married couple, we are never very much apart and anywhere we hang our hat is home! It’s also more difficult, because we know what the other can do and are very demanding of ourselves and each other.
We work very closely on the dramaturgy together until we are both completely happy with the concept. We exchange ideas like players in a tennis match. We have a reputation for being extremely well-prepared and knowing what we want; we take the opera art-form and business very seriously. We don’t believe in improvisation... We prepare our work very carefully in advance and Renaud, who was trained as a musician and principal ballet dancer, submits the full score almost a year in advance, complete with his staging, light cues, chorus movements, scene changes and even timings to achieve the quick costume changes. It’s such a delight to see the team’s faces when he shows them! I do the same with the costume renderings and stage model so we can prepare work precisely with the set, costume, wig and props departments.
This is Glyndebourne’s first new production of Die Zauberflöte in over a decade. What drew you to Mozart’s final opera?
Originally we were asked to stage and design Cendrillon by Massenet, but we had already done a very successful production at L’Opera National du Rhin which was revived at New York City Opera, among other venues. It was difficult to come up with an entirely different concept, so then Glyndebourne offered us The Magic Flute. We had been offered it four times in the past but had always turned it down because despite its enchanting music, we felt that the libretto was problematic and – especially for our times – quite misogynistic and racist. But we could not say no to Glyndebourne! So we worked hard at finding ways to use the full score and speak to today’s audience, to shed new light on that perennial story.
Visually, what can audiences expect from your production? What were your inspirations for the sets and costumes?
Originally when we discussed this production with Glyndebourne, there was a wish to ‘create memories’ among families coming with their children to see the production, perhaps as their first opera. Being a Singspiel, we wanted to remain faithful to the spirit of Mozart’s creation, which is almost like a musical comedy with lots of action, magic, scene changes and special effects. Act II can often feel long and we wanted to keep the audience on their toes.
After a lot of research, we decided to draw inspiration from Anna Sacher, who at the beginning of the 20th century, took over from her suddenly deceased husband as the proprietor of the famous Sacher Hotel in Vienna. She became an extraordinary businesswoman in a time where men still considered women inferior beings! We decided that the Queen of the Night would be based on her and fighting Sarastro (the head chef, based on the famous Auguste Escoffier). She wants her daughter Pamina to have the same opportunities as men and is supporting the suffragette movement in their fight for equal rights. This ties in with the siècle des lumières, which is so much a part of Mozart: the desire for a union of strength between women and men.
So the action takes place in dream-like hotel surroundings, with the set designs based on black and white Victorian engravings of the period. In perspective, they provide a sharp contrast with the characters’ costumes, which are deliberately designed in bright colours to allow the audience to follow the characters throughout their transformative journeys. I had to draw all the renderings in scale for each backdrop; these were then scanned and printed life-size and then reworked with paint to add more dimension and depth. It took me over 18 months to complete the drawings in the middle of other productions...
To accompany the production, you have created a beautiful range of Die Zauberflöte merchandise exclusively for the Glyndebourne Shop, including the Cloud collection (based on a set design), the Costume Design collection and limited edition prints. Tell us more!
The Cloud collection is based on the puppeteers’ costumes. They had to blend in with the black and white sets whenever they were manipulating the many puppets we have in the show. I came up with the idea of dressing them in 1900s butler and maid uniforms but in a cloud print, to add to the dreamy feel of the production and to blend with the hotel reception walls. So I designed a pattern which could be repeated; it was subsequently printed and became an important part of the production.
My colour costume designs, for the principal characters, have been used to create cups, trays, tea towels and T-shirts and offer a contrasting, colourful alternative to the monochrome cloud prints.
It’s the first time I’ve been asked to use my artwork to create a collection of merchandise. It’s very strange seeing my own drawings on so many items, because I am so critical of them and always see details I wish I could have done differently… But it really was a labor of love and a pleasure, a long and fruitful journey involving so many talented colleagues. Renaud and I do hope the production will be enjoyed as much by the audience as we have enjoyed creating it together.
Barbe & Doucet’s production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte runs from 18 July – 24 August as part of the 2019 Glyndebourne Festival
- Glyndebourne Die Zauberflöte Tea Towel Glyndebourne 'Cloud' Silk Bow Tie Glyndebourne 'Cloud' Silk Waistcoat Papageno Cotton T-shirt
- Glyndebourne Die Zauberflöte Mug Glyndebourne 'Cloud' Silk Braces Glyndebourne 'Cloud' Silk Cummerbund Suffragette Cotton T-shirt
Main image: Bill Cooper
Product Images: The Photography Firm