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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

At the moment, Wilson is working on two operas together with a tried-and-true fellow-minimalist, Philip Glass. The first collaboration is scheduled for a 1992 premiere in Lisbon. The second should be ready in 1994.

Wilson isn't sure where its first performance will take place. "It could be America," he admits.

He also admits that he has had a strange love-hate relationship with his own country, or, more likely, vice-versa.

This, one may recall, is the man who once hurled anti-American expletives at a Manhattan audience that, he felt, didn't respond properly to an opus called "Edison." If the viewers didn't like it, he suggested, they should "go see 'Sweeney Todd' or 'The Elephant Man.' "

He never had to do much yelling at his public abroad.

"I had no idea I was going to have a career in the theater," he explains. "I did not plan it."

After attending the University of Texas in Austin from 1959 to 1962, Wilson studied painting with George McNeil in Paris. By 1965 he was back in the States, earning his B.F.A. from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Next he served as apprentice to the futuristic architect Paolo Soleri at the Arcosanti Community in Arizona.

Among other aesthetic experiments, he dabbled in theater in and around New York during the late 1960s. His crucial breakthrough, however, took place far from home.

"It happened in Europe," he says. "I wasn't sure what to do with my life. I just caught on, first in France, then Italy and Germany.

"An extraordinary thing happened. The minister of culture in France commissioned Philip Glass and me to do 'Einstein on the Beach.' He gave us $150,000 for the creation. We started a workshop in New York.

"That would be unheard of--that our government would give two men in France money to start a workshop in Paris to create an opera.

"In Europe, unlike the States, they have a cultural policy. Andre Malraux once wrote that he hoped to see a balance of interest in the arts: an interest protecting the art of the past, an interest protecting the art of our time, an interest protecting the art of our nation and another protecting the art of all nations.

"It is a historical commitment. That's the difference between Europe and America.

"I think that opera in Europe is 30 years ahead of America," Wilson declares. "There is a broader range of material presented to the public. They value contemporary opera. Even a house like La Scala has a world premiere once a year. We are lucky here if we get one every 10 years."

There is a lot of opera in Wilson's immediate future--mostly Wagner and Mozart. "Parsifal" is planned for Hamburg, "Tristan" for Paris, "Lohengrin" for Zurich. The Bastille (he loves the new house backstage, hates it out front) will host his "Zauberflote," a production that may rival Peter Sellars' controversial Glyndebourne experiment. "Don Giovanni" follows in Berlin, "Idomeneo" in Prague.

For years now, one has heard talk of a Bayreuth debut. "It will happen," he says, "but not now."

The "Ring"?

"I don't think so." He adds the physical punctuation of a mock shudder. "It's a lot of work. It takes a lot of time."

He never shrank from extravagant work and time expenditure in the past. Perhaps "the CIVIL warS" have taken their toll after all.

Wilson likes to analyze everything he touches. But he doesn't seem to like analytical talk.

"I don't play an instrument and I can't read music," he has said. "I'm very instinctive. My pieces usually end up very precise, but they start out very intuitively."

How, one asks, would he expect a novice to approach his "Alceste"?

"I just want people to be open to the experience," he bristles. "I don't choose to interpret my works.

"To me, what is important in the theater is that we don't want to make a conclusion. We don't want to make a statement, don't want to say what something is. We want to ask, 'What is it?'

"That's our responsibility when we make theater--directors, writers, actors. . . . We invite the public in to share something, and ask the question. They can make the answer."

Wilson interrupts the interview. It is time for him to take over.

"Do you know anything about the design for 'Alceste'?" he asks. "Want me to tell you?"

It is a rhetorical question.

He pulls a red felt pen and envelope from his jacket pocket. "I'm going to make a little drawing for you quickly, and then I must go."

He executes a neat series of scene sketches, accompanied by a stream of conscious descriptions.

"What I have done is. . . .

"One sees in the beginning a triangle of light and a cube floating in space. . . .

"Gluck speaks of simple nobility. . . .

"There is a big doorway with light coming out. . . .

"The cube is small now, and it is turning as it floats. . . .

"We go into a great hallway defined by a series of columns. . . ."

He brushes aside an interpolated question about influences on the style.

"It is very simple, a classical composition. My designs parallel the story, but they don't directly illustrate it.

"What I do isn't arbitrary."

He speaks slowly. He wants each word to sink in.

Wilson dispatches the final tableau with swift, sure strokes. It depicts a stick figure, Alceste, poised in uncertainty on the threshold of the castle.

He hands over the illustrated envelope and bids a courtly farewell. He has choreographed a graceful exit. The interview is over.

It wasn't arbitrary.

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