Bruce LaBruce and Item Idem At the Opera

Interview by Michael Ladner

Last Sunday at around 7:30 p.m. CET at the Hebbel am Ufer theatre in Berlin-Kreuzberg, a massive iron curtain thundered upwards, marking the premiere of Bruce LaBruce’s first-ever staging of Arnold Schönberg’s melodrama Pierrot Lunaire. Leave it to Bruce LaBruce to transform Schönberg’s opera of sorts into a one-hour-long gender-bending tale of impossible love, guilt, and confusion — complete with a neo-expressionist stage design including a dick-guillotine and dildos aplenty. A day before the premiere Bruce and his art director Cyril Duval aka item idem took time out from tending to the production’s final kinks to answer some of BUTT’s pondering questions.

Michael: Bruce La Bruce directing an opera? I didn’t know you were a lover of classical music.
Bruce: I’ve never been an opera queen, although I listen to a classical music station whenever I’m at my barber’s, who always has it on. So I don’t know much about opera, but I like the sound of it: dramatic and melodramatic. But the classical music world per se doesn’t interest me so much. It seems kind of stuffed and mounted.
So how did this project come to be? Did you choose Pierrot Lunaire yourself? What drew you to this opera?
B: I didn’t choose it; it chose me. The Serbian conductor Premil Petrovic, who is a friend of my frequent collaborator, the actor Susanne Sachße, suggested that we mount a production of Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire with Premil conducting and me directing, and Susanne starring. I jumped at the chance to work with Susanne again, and I was also interested in directing an existing musical work that I could interpret.
And how did you join the project, Cyril?
Cyril: Bruce and I have wanted to do a larger production together for few years. About a year and a half ago Bruce mentioned he was going to direct an opera…
B: …we actually prefer to refer to Pierrot Lunaire as simply a musical melodrama now…
C: And Bruce wanted me to be the art director and stage designer. He mentioned that the highlight would be a glory hole-guillotine, and obviously that conceptual slice of humor was just the right thing to bring me in!
The character Pierrot has dramatically evolved over time and can embody a wide range of characteristics from the fool, the narcissist, the dreamer. How did you assemble your Pierrot?
B: I decided to apply a narrative to Pierrot Lunaire, and the one I chose was based on an urban legend from Toronto, a gruesome and tragic tale involving a female-to-male transsexual. So our Pierrot is a female dressed as a male, but also living and believing she is male. It was only after I decided to use this story that I discovered that Schönberg actually intended for the role of Pierrot to be played by a female.
What is the Toronto-based story that was the inspiration for your version?
B: I don’t want to reveal too much. It happened 20 or 30 years ago. A female living as a male decided, for various reasons, she needed a cock of her own, so she went hunting for one… That’s all I can say.
Was there an overall aesthetic concept for the stage design?
C: I tried few paths, first obsessing about a mirrored castle sculpture that Michael Jackson used to own. Then I looked at classical German Expressionism — like Murnau’s Nosferatu, or Fritz Lang’s M — which were the obvious key references. But I also turned to traditional arts like Butoh and Bunraku, who enhanced my Japanese way of understanding what I conceived of as expressionist minimalism. Also some rare Schönberg drawings, early Keith Haring paintings, or movies from the ’80s and ’90s such as Tron, Hellraiser, or Twin Peaks. Finally, I was inspired by the contemporary makeup artist Alex Box and indulging myself in low-key video games from my childhood. In the end it’s like looking down at abyss and falling. I actually call it “Merzbau on Steroids,” based on Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau. The whole thing is largely rendered in black and white with reflective tape adding another dimension.
What’s the juiciest scene?
B: The dick-capitation! Actually, there are two — a fake one and a “real” one. The dildo situation is kind of complicated. I’m not even sure I understand it yet.
C: Bruce created the concept of dick-capitation, I’m pretty sure this is to be heard again! We ended up using something very simple, an oversized glowing blade sliding down on a web of black rubber. But the body of the guillotine itself is nested in a massive scaffold installation with two infinite poles for Luizo Vega to perform acrobatics on and finally chop his manhood off in a David Copperfield-like stunt.
If you could use the glory hole-guillotine on anybody, whose cock would you chop off?
B: Sarah Palin’s!
C: Lady Gaga’s, though I presume that as Hydra she has several, so more would grow back.

The last performance of Pierro Lunaire at Hebbel am Ufer theatre is tonight, on Thursday, March 10, 2011.

End