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A culinary-inspired, feminist Magic Flute: Canadian design/director team Barbe & Doucet look to two ground-breaking women entrepreneurs for their Glyndebourne debut.

Barbe and Doucet may be based in Italy, but the French-Canadian design/directing duo are always on the go-- their busy schedule keeps them jetting to and fro between various cities in Europe and North America. Recently, they've been preparing their first production for England's premiere summer opera festival, Glyndebourne. "The idea is that we are going to make a celebration of theatre," says stage and costume designer Andre Barbe.

"We give things to the audience, and the audience decides to travel with us," adds director and choreographer Renaud Doucet. "It's an exchange. Sometimes the things that have the most challenge are the most interesting."

The pair has provided challenge and entertainment in vivid doses for almost two decades with their vast array of chewy, visually-striking productions. After separate starts in the worlds of theatre, opera, dance, and television, the two formally became a brand ('Barbe & Doucet') in 2000, and have since helmed over 30 new productions. In 2009/10, Florida Grand Opera turned their entire season over to the duo, presenting their stagings of Lucia di Lammermoor, I Pagliacci, Suor Angelica, II barbiere di Siviglia and Carmen. In 2013, they helmed Richard Wagner's Die Feen in a co-production between Oper Leipzig and the Bayreuth Festival. At Wexford Festival Opera, they've produced Si j'etais roi (by Adolphe Charles Adam; the 2000 production featured a then-unknown Joseph Calleja), Penelope (Gabriel Faure, 2005) La Navarraise and Therese (both Massenet, both 2013), and most recently, their colourful vision of II Bravo (Saverio Mercadante, 2018), which won Best Opera Production at The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards in March. This season they've presented Offenbach's La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein at Oper Koln and The Sound of Music and Les Contes d'Hoffmann atVolksoper Wien; La Belle Helene at Staatsoper Hamburg, and Don Pasquale atTeatro Carlo Felice in Genoa. In February, they staged La Boheme for Vancouver Opera, incorporating elements of time travel and Jazz Age Paris.

For their first Glyndebourne outing, the team will serve up a unique vision of The Magic Flute that fuses European culinary history and feminism. Anticipation ran high at the initial announcement, and there is limited ticket availability for the fifteen performances running throughout July and August. "There are a lot of people who think of entertainment as a bad word," Renaud says." I remember in Canada twenty years ago, somebody told me, 'You can't catch flies with vinegar'--I remember this line because it applies to the audience: you can make them appreciate different things, but you also need to give them tasty things."

For Glyndebourne, those treats will coine in the form of a Flute set in the world of early 20th-century culinary arts, with famed chef Escoffier among the many influences. In its original form, the opera is, as Doucet notes, problematic in several areas for contemporary audiences. He and Barbe had avoided producing it despite numerous invitations. "It's totally misogynist and it is racist, and we always said we did not have the solution for it, and the goal is not to change the piece. The goal was to find a solution."

That solution will take shape in what they call "the downstairs life" of a hotel, specifically its kitchen activities, thereby confronting issues of class, gender, and race. Former Glyndebourne General Director Sebastian F. Schwarz approached the pair about possibly staging Flute after seeing their 2006 production of Turandot forVolksoper Wien, with its striking insect-style imagery and thoughtful presentation. "In our discussions, we knew we needed to find an angle," Doucet continues, "to be true to Mozart...we had to gel the drama with the sexism and not avoid it. Most of the time people are cutting the parts that are problematic, and we knew we couldn't cut anything. We needed to find a way to make every single line have an impact."

That approach included re-thinking certain characters. "The big problematic character is Monostatos," Barbe says. "He's sup posed to be black, and in this production, he's in charge of the furnace--his face is covered in soot. He represents the working class. He says to Pamina, "I'm black" but he means, "My face is black, I'm a working man, I'm not of your society."

The team was also determined to confront the calcified perceptions around one of the opera's most important, if misunderstood, characters. "The Queen of the Night is, most of the time, portrayed as a bitch," says Doucet," and I cannot stand that idea, because she has lots of reasons to do what she does. We need to understand where she comes from and why she's reduced to extremities--and mostly it's because of men. The difficulty is that we have a preconceived idea of what The Magic Flute is."

The pair's detailed dramaturgy included research into the life of a famed figure from early 20th-century Vienna. "We stumbled across the story of Anna Sacher," says Barbe. "When her husband passed away and she was in charge of the hotel, everybody was telling her, 'You won't make it, no woman has ever been in charge of a hotel before!'--but she really became a very famous lady, and made a very famous hotel. That [story] gave us ideas about how we would deal with this Magic Flute"

Born in 1859 to modest means, Sacher married one of the three sons of Franz Sacher, a cook in Prince Metternich's kitchen. Eduard Sacher had started out as a cook before opening a Viennese tavern. In 1873, he opened the Hotel Sacher, which offered aristocratic society chic dining and accommodation options; the business was continued by his widow after his premature passing in 1892. Frau Sacher, as she came to be known, had a meticulous eye for detail and successfully managed the hotel for over four decades, assisted by longtime head waiter Franz Wagner. The famed Sacher torte is named after the establishment. Notably, Emperor Franz Joseph I never visited the hotel; he regarded it as something of a posh bordello, its private rooms regularly hosting adulterous sexual activities. Known for her love of cigars and her two small dogs, Sacher was awarded the Goldene Verdienstkreuz (Golden Achievement Cross of the Austrian Republic) for feeding and providing lodging to poor students during WWI. As her funeral cortege passed in the streets following her death in 1930, many Viennese removed their hats as a sign of respect.

In tying the Queen of the Night to Sacher, the pair aims to realign the opera's power dynamics, enabling the character to emerge more fully-formed, especially in relation to Sarastro. Barbe says they will present the character "as a widow--her husband has died, leaving some of the power to her. It became interesting to think maybe her husband was owner of the hotel, and Sarastro was in charge of the restaurant and now they're fighting [to see] who has more power."

Power is also examined within the dynamics of the work's spiritual and ritualistic realms. Freemasonry, the fraternal organization which in the 18th-century encouraged Enlightenment values, ties the world of The Magic Flute (and indeed its composer) with that of gastronomy. Many of the first formally-trained chefs who emerged after the French Revolution (an event itself rumoured to be initiated by Freemasons) belonged to the Brotherhood. In 2013, Bon Appetit reported that many top chefs are still members. Chef/author Edmond Outin published La cuisine des francs-masons in the mid-2000s, underlining the ritualistic nature of food within Freemason culture, but the relationship between the French culinary world and the brotherhood is still largely secretive. Barbe and Doucet have chosen to present the Queen's daughter, Pamina, as challenging both the secrecy and exclusionary nature of this world, taking English cook and Cavendish Hotel owner Rosa Lewis as inspiration.

Starting out in domestic service, Lewis was trained by the renowned French chef, Escoffier, at the historic Carlton Hotel, and worked briefly for Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of the future Prime Minister. Lewis was reportedly mistress to Edward VII, who greatly admired her cooking, as did Prince Philippe of Orleans, Count of Paris, claimant to the French throne. Kaiser Wilhelm II gave her his portrait which she reportedly hung upside down in the Cavendish men's toilets during WWI. She survived WWII bombings of the Cavendish, and died in 1952. Her life was dramatized in the 1976-77 BBC television series "The Duchess of Duke Street." In 2006, a commemorative plaque was unveiled near the location of the old hotel, honouring Lewis as a Chef de Cuisine and Hotelier.

"She wanted to cook," notes Barbe, "but in those days the very good cooks were all men. She begged to learn--so it gave us another idea."

"Frau Sacher and Rosa Lewis were these two women at the start of the 20th century, fighting to get their rights, to do what they wanted," adds Doucet. "And it was also the beginning of the Suffragette movement. The Queen of The Night wants a better future for her daughter, Pamina. So we decided the daughter wants to be a chef, wants to cook, which was something not allowed for women. The men were the high priests of the kitchen and the women were the servants."

Original concepts like this Flute are achieved in a creative partnership which, the duo freely admits, relies on debate. "If we present something to the other we don't feel is the right idea, we won't compromise" says Doucet. We only "agree on everything ... after a lot of discussion and prototypes--and arguments sometimes!" adds Barbe. "Then [the concept is] clear. And when we arrive in Glyndebourne, there won't be questions--we know where we stand, where we're going, and everyone will hopefully be as enthusiastic as we are. There's a fever to the enthusiasm."

Barbe & Doucet's new production of The Magic Flute runs at Glyndebourne from July 18-August 24

Caption: Vienna's Hotel Sacher

Caption: Anna Sacher

Caption: Portrait of Rosa Lewis after 1914 original by Daniel Albert Wehrschmidt

Caption: Andre Barbe & Renault Doucet
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Title Annotation:New Production
Author:Kustanczy, Catherine
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Jun 22, 2019
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