Via del Bambino Gesu is the most exclusive address in Milan. Outside, the houses lining the street look like forbidding stone fortresses. Inside one of these, after one has safely passed through the portcullis, past the growling German shepherds with chiseled teeth, past the armed guards, after ascending the grand staircase to the piano nobile, one is transported to a palazzo of Baroque splendor: marble on the floor, gold-framed mirrors on the wall, crystal chandeliers suspended in the air. It all looks like an extravagant fantasy dreamed up by La Scala opera director Franco Zeffirelli, but, in fact, this palazzo is the grandiose residence of fashion designer Gianni Versace.
A long Renaissance table, elaborately carved with garlands and cornucopia, stands against one wall in Versace's conference room. At its head, a sheaf of papers and a silver goblet with freshly sharpened pencils sit. Versace stares out the window into the exotic gardens of his palace. Expectantly, nervously, others fidget, waiting for director Robert Wilson, an American original from Waco, Texas, to arrive. They have gathered this evening for the first production meeting of a new opera to be performed at La Scala based on novelist Thomas Mann's "Dr. Faustus." Versace is designing the costumes. Those who have never worked with Wilson pump the others for clues about the enigmatic director who has dominated European theater for the past 15 years. Words like "odd," "weird," "bizarre" buzz through the room.
Wilson--a towering 6'4" with luminous blue eyes and sandy hair--strides through the door an hour late. He stalks over to the table, sits down, takes a long pencil, starts drawing. The others slowly gather round and sit down. The director's brooding presence imposes an unearthly silence. No one dares speak. The minutes drag by, creating a tension that soon becomes excruciating. Sitting quietly, people squirm, twist, itch. Wilson continues to draw, lost in absolute concentration, seemingly oblivious to everything around him. After an eternity, he raises his head. "This is how I think," he explains, holding aloft the pencil. He shows the group a drawing: a milk bottle with nails stuck all over it. "I thought I would have a screen over the stage with a film of someone driving nails into a milk bottle, but the milk doesn't run out."
Giacomo Manzoni, the befuddled composer, asks what the milk bottle means. "What does meaning mean?" returns the director. "I'm an artist, not a philosopher. I draw pictures. I don't draw meanings. The audience creates the meaning."
The composer continues to grumble. "But the scene takes place in a bordello. The audience won't know it's a bordello. That milk bottle doesn't have anything to do with my opera."
"You don't have to be in a bordello visually," Wilson shoots back. "This milk bottle is interesting to look at."
Versace stares blankly at the two men.
Nine months later, "Doktor Faustus" opens to roaring cheers.
WILSON CAN BE CONFOUNDING, TO say the least, but his work compensates for any vexations. The Merlin of the avant-garde, Wilson, 51, has transformed performance by challenging its idolatry of the word and giving it dissonant images. Eighty ostriches tripping a wild fandango on the moon; Frederick the Great dancing a delicate minuet with two lumbering bears; King Lear stumbling over Lincoln on a deserted battlefield while overhead a giant snow owl screeches a Hopi Indian prayer for peace--Wilson's startling juxtapositions create an unforgettable, mysterious beauty.
"What you hear, what you see must be different," he says. "When you put them together, they create another texture, another meaning." This radical disjunction of word and image is Wilson's why-paint-a-white-horse-white theory. "If you place a baroque candelabra on a baroque table, both get lost. If you place the candelabra on a rock in the ocean, you begin to see what it is. Usually in theater the visual repeats the verbal. The visual dwindles into decoration. But I think with my eyes. For me the visual is not an afterthought, not an illustration of the text. If it says the same thing as the words, why look? The visual must be so compelling that a deaf man would sit though the performance fascinated."
His productions cast such a spell that aficionados drive from Berlin to Milan, from Paris to Madrid, from Rotterdam to Munich to catch a Wilson premiere. Outside the Thalia Theater in Hamburg, Germany, squadrons of students patrol the street, scrounging for tickets for "Alice," a saturnine musical that opened in December and has played since to sold-out houses.