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The Mild-Mannered Avant-Gardist : Opera director Robert Wilson's persona belies the passion he arouses from critics and audiences

October 07, 1990|MARTIN BERNHEIMER

He responds to questions but volunteers little. He is courteous, ever-amiable yet potentially laconic. His drawl is diluted with cosmopolitan nuance. At the outset he functions like a proud graduate of the hoary my-art-speaks-for-itself school. Then he thaws.

Understandably, "Alceste" is on his mind. Although he had staged a similar production a few years earlier in Stuttgart, this one represents a culmination of a longstanding plan. Jessye Norman, one of his favored and favorite collaborators, is now assuming the title role.

"I designed the whole piece for her," he explains. "The way I work, a piece is adjusted to the personality of the performer. It was Jessye who asked to do this in the first place."

Wilson says he has done much to accommodate the statuesque prima donna. "I have given her lots of space. The doors are very tall. She is a big woman. The production is really in scale for her."

Preparing for the opera, Wilson first staged Euripides' "Alcestis" in Boston. "Some things about the ancient text," he admits, "helped me to understand."

Both director and diva had a major disagreement with the Chicago management about one element in the opera production: supertitles. The management wanted the translated text projected, as is now usual, on a screen atop the proscenium. The creative protagonists did not. "For this production, the titles seemed too disturbing," Wilson says, almost diplomatically. "I objected to them. I'm a visual artist, and I'm very concentrated on looking at the stage." He stresses the verb.

"The piece is very carefully detailed. Gestures are carefully rehearsed, choreographed. Movements are slower than what we normally see in a stage setting. To make the audience look up and look down would be too disturbing."

When pressed, he confirms a theoretical distaste for operatic captions. "I have never worked with them. In this production they could be especially confusing."

In passing, he warns that one desired effect will be missing from the opening performance.

"There is supposed to be fire at the altar, but Miss Norman had a reaction to the chemicals, so we're cutting it tonight."

A wag suggests a solution: Flash the cue-word "FIRE" on the unused screen at the appropriate moment. Wilson finds the mock-idea hilarious.

"I think you work for the Chicago Lyric Opera," he admonishes. "It took me a long time to get rid of those supertitles. Now I hope everyone is happy."

Wilson worries little about impulses getting lost in non-translation. After all, he recently went to Munich to stage a difficult Chekhov play, "Swan Song," in German. He claims, when asked, that he doesn't happen to speak German. The thought makes him laugh.

How did he convey his ideas to the actors?

"You'd have to come and watch me do it," he quips.

Then he executes a disarming shrug.

If all had gone as planned and hoped a few years ago, Los Angeles would know a good deal about Robert Wilson. In 1984, the Olympic Arts Festival was supposed to host the premiere of his most magnum of magnum-opuses, "the CIVIL warS" (that's his own quirky capitalization).

The sociopolitical historical ultra-extravaganza, subtitled "a tree is best measured when it is down," was to last 12 hours, cost $7 million and enlist massive, stellar forces from at least four countries. It was to play in the vast open spaces of Shrine Auditorium, capacity 6,600. This could have been an opera--if one may call it that--to end all operas, a music drama to out-Wagner Wagner.

Unfortunately, "the CIVIL warS" were never fought. The logistic challenges proved insurmountable. The money ran out.

Wilson was apoplectic at the time. He called Los Angeles "a second-rate cultural outpost." He decried "the lack of a cultural policy in this country."

A Paris newspaper echoed the complaint, labeling the cancellation "a crime against culture." The Wall Street Journal seconded the accusative motion, pointing to a chronic "failure of nerve in Los Angeles."

Individual portions of "the CIVIL warS" eventually did find their way to stages elsewhere. The sprawling entity, however, remains unperformed.

"That's gone," Wilson now says matter-of-factly. "Parts will probably continue to be done, but not the whole thing. It was something built for that moment, for that time."

He admits that the imbroglio had "made him crazy." Now his seems philosophical.

"I'm over it. I had worked nearly five years. I was in debt. But I learned a lot from the experience."

When the cancellation was announced, he blamed the disaster on the Olympic Committee, the private fund-raisers and the Los Angeles Times. He said he failed to get the support in depth that his project deserved. Now he insists that he has changed his mind.

"I blame no one."

His tone doesn't exactly ring with conviction. He pauses, then grins.

"Give me some vodka, and I'll tell you who's to blame."

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