Ambling along a corridor of the blocklong design shop operated by the Center Theater Group, Robert Israel doesn't cut the controversial figure his reputation suggests.
Unassuming and impishly good-natured, the Obie award winner gives little hint of the post-modern maverick whose 1986 designs for Wagner's "Ring" in Seattle brought him volleys of both cheers and jeers; or even the controversial "Vienna: Lusthaus," which he did with theatrical innovator Martha Clarke the same year in New York.
Right now he's too immersed in his current project--the Music Center Opera production of Prokofiev's "The Fiery Angel," opening Wednesday--to cast a backward glance.
Still, one can glean something of the anti-utilitarian attitude that has jolted a few complacent traditionalists as Israel describes the gist of his first major work in the city he calls home:
"It's an Expressionist quality that I want to convey (in 'Fiery Angel')," he says, propping himself against a stool in the fitting room, where he looks like an ad for casual underground chic.
"Something reminiscent of the German modernists Grosz and Nolde.
"But all things for me are grounded in the classical mode. So it's a matter of turning and pulling those elements toward a more severe and anxiety-rich position, one that matches the primitive or perverse twists of the music and the story"--in this case, a triangle concerning "a woman obsessed with a man who's not really a man, but maybe a devil, and another man obsessed with the woman."
Israel says that his work with Andrei Serban, the Romanian-born director who, prior to "Fiery Angel" also staged a rethought "Turandot" (the Royal Opera production seen here in 1984), is "typically collaborative.
"When Serban invited me to do the Prokofiev piece with him, he knew he was not engaging a technician, someone who just translates museum models to stage renderings.
"Right away he asked me my impressions and the work we ended up doing together became a cross-pollination of ideas. The substance comes out of the process of exchange."
Also in a democratic spirit, the 47-year-old designer quickly mentions that the materializing sets and costumes have much to do with suggestions made by the technicians and craftsmen who implement his creations.
That's a rather self-effacing position for an artist credited with a one-man show at no less prestigious a New York museum than the Whitney. Working in a genre similar to Robert Wilson, he also collaborated with Philip Glass on such operas as "Akhnaten" and "Satyagraha," in productions around the world.
Israel has made his operatic reputation largely with the kind of contemporary and/or whimsical ventures that accomodate imaginative designs. But his major plunge into the 19th-Century repertory, vis-a-vis the Seattle "Ring," has resounded with cries from the ranks of Wagnerians.
Does Israel see himself as contributing to this so-called age of the director/designer in opera?
"Not specifically," he says. "But we're living in a time when the drama is central . . . when we see opera as a kind of theater, rather than a kind of singing.
"Often a designer gets told that audiences don't come to hear the sets, which is another way of enforcing the idea that staging should be mere window dressing. But I say that we want it all to be as good as possible. A great opera can stand great sets and costumes and direction."
Whether the subject is prime Glass minimalism or the "Ring," Israel sees his artistic task as the same: "It's a quest for discovering the work's structure, its transitions, its progress, all through a specific point of view. And then articulating that concept visually.
"In the end I try to allow a certain play between illusion and reality, those two cornerstones of Western art. And to practice my Brechtian ideals. After all, what we have in the theater are called plays . . . aren't they?"