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Are You Ready For digital Opera

COVER STORY

Robert Wilson and Philip Glass turn software into art for a sound and light show like you've never seen.

April 12, 1998|Justin Davidson | Justin Davidson is music critic at Newsday in New York

NEW YORK — A pair of thick cables, red and blue, hang in the air, liquid pulsating through the translucent tubes in time to the hypnotic oscillations of music by Philip Glass. The cables wind through space until they reveal themselves to be blood vessels that lead to a severed but living, almost palpable hand. The hand rotates, hovering in darkness, until the giant fingers beckon and a stiletto drops onto the flesh, making a neat incision. The fingers do not clench. There is nobody connected to them to feel any pain.

This is the visual world of theater and opera director Robert Wilson: a weird universe of luminous, inanimate flesh, nearly still human figures and impossible juxtapositions. A covered wagon trundles weightlessly across the sky above a Chinese pagoda. A family perches on the roof of a floating suburban house, riding it gently downriver, past a jungle and out into the open sea.

These images come from "Monsters of Grace," a 68-minute visual poem rendered in 3-D computer animation, projected stereoscopically, embellished with live staging and accompanied by Glass' music. On Wednesday, audiences at UCLA's newly renovated Royce Hall will watch version 1.0 of this evolving work of software art through souvenir polarized glasses designed by l.a.Eyeworks. "Monsters of Grace" is a 3-D movie, but it is not just another monster flick.

Until now, Wilson has had to cram his vast imagination into the confines of the stage, crowding it at times with a profusion of decorative fantasies bound to infuriate the incorrigibly rational, or filling it only with shifting, brilliant light. In either case, it would be a mistake to search for any precise significance in his images or any one-to-one correlation among staging, music and text. In his recent collaboration with Lou Reed, "Time Rocker," an ensemble of "future farmers" in baggy spacesuits and crystallized hair bend over rows of black-and-white geometric forms. In his 1996 production of Virgil Thomson's "Four Saints in Three Acts," stiff-legged sheep float down through the air, pale-blue cutout giraffes bow their heads to the stage from the wings, and one of the characters wears a tuxedo with a furry left-hand side.

Wilson's productions are invariably a strain on the most sophisticated stage machinery and the best-drilled crews. With "Monsters," though, Wilson jettisons the logistical burdens of theater, and computer animation slips away from the high-speed, sci-fi slickness of Hollywood. The two meet in a digital marriage of the virtual and the surreal. What is novel about this project is not the technology but the specific configuration of sensibilities it represents.

"Monsters," says Diana Walczak, one of the co-creators of its digital world and a veteran of Hollywood computer animation, "has the scale and dynamics of film, the depth and space of theater and the sensitivity of art."

Presiding over this wedding of genres is Jedediah Wheeler, the president of International Production Associates and the man who six years ago sent the first Wilson-Glass collaboration--the mammoth, mystifying and now classic opera "Einstein on the Beach" from 1976--out on the road.

"This has never been done before," Wheeler gushes, sitting in his office in a converted industrial space in lower Manhattan. "And that fact is causing people a lot of anxiety. I've got newspapers demanding photos of something that doesn't exist yet! We won't know what this is actually going to look like until we do it. That's what excites me about it."

It was "Einstein" that begat "Monsters," in a sense. Wheeler was dazzled by a half-hour sequence from that early work, in which a supine beam of light slowly rose from the floor and righted itself to the improvised noodling of a solo sax. There were no words, no story, no people in that scene--only the trio that would become the mantra of "Monsters": objects, light and sound.

Wheeler wanted to originate a Wilson-Glass project of his own, a portable theatrical experience that he could use to introduce Wilson, who was born in Waco, Texas, and now seems to live mostly in hotel rooms, to the heartland of America.

For the rest of this year, "Monsters" is scheduled to tour Wilson's worldwide stamping ground--London, Rome, Munich, Amsterdam, Brooklyn. But beginning in January, the lean, relatively inexpensive show will strike out for territories that have never lain eyes on a Robert Wilson production: Kalamazoo, Mich.; Lawrence, Kan.; Tempe, Ariz.

"In Europe, Wilson is . . . what's greater than a god?" Wheeler says, grandiosely but not inaccurately. "In this country, they hardly know him at all."

(And what they do know, they don't always appreciate--even in New York. Last month, Wilson's minimal, abstract, enigmatic new production of Wagner's "Lohengrin" at the Metropolitan Opera--his Met debut--was greeted by boos and blistering reviews.)

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