Robert LepageRobert Lepage's visionary version of Igor Stravinsky's The Nightingale, featured a flooded orchestra pit and Asian shadow puppets.

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The eccentric French-Canadian director talked about the extraordinary concept behind his production when it played at the Festival d'Aix in July 2010.

"I've been thinking about thi s idea for quite a long time, but I didn't know what opera house might stage it because the idea of flooding an orchestra pit wasn't exactly self-evident! But when I worked on Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress at La Monnaie in Brussels, Bernard Foccroulle, the then-director, had the idea of a Stravinsky evening.

"I thought of the Nightingale, but it was Bernard who suggested adding a series of smaller pieces connected with the animal world, fairy-tales or fables and he chose some pieces by Stravinsky that I didn't know well at the time.

"When he was named the director of the Aix en Provence festival, we thought a festival setting like this would be more suitable than an opera house to create the work in its full flamboyance and the project took shape quite quickly.

A scene from Robert Lepage's production of Stravinsky's The Nightingale"We soon attracted other co-producers who enabled us to stage a first version in Toronto and to push the idea further now and to refine it.

"It certainly owes something to my work on the 'Andersen Project' of 2005 because, when you're preparing a show about the life of [Hans Christian] Andersen, you read pretty much all his stories.

"I knew the story of The Nightingale but not where it came from. It was said that Stravinsky wrote it for the Swedish singer Jenny Lind, whom he was in love with and who was known as the 'nightingale of the North.'

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"At that time Andersen was very fascinated by an exhibition of chinoiseries at the Tivoli in Copenhagen, where you could see little Chinese shadow theatres. That's where I got the idea of turning The Nightingale into a 'chinoiserie' in the spirit of Andersen's imaginary China.

"I was also interested in Vietnamese culture and water puppets, which I saw on my first trip to Vietnam. This form interested me a lot and I had the impression that Stravinsky's work and this technique - mingled with other related techniques such as Chinese shadows, Japanese bunraku marionettes and Balinese shadow puppets - would make a perfect union.

"Flooding the orchestra pit required us to resolve the question of the orchestra, because if you dislodge it from its usual position, you have to find somewhere else for it. What I like about this show is that the orchestra has the place of honour, since it's on the stage, while the singers are in the pit. They have the orchestra behind them, whereas they're used to fighting against the sound storm that separates them from the audience and to project their voices in order to pass through it and reach the public.

"Here, the opposite is the case: not only are the singers near the audience but the water - which is an excellent sound conductor - also helps them put across their voices. It shakes all the rules up a little and it was a huge challenge, acoustically above all, even more than on the aesthetic or visual level."

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