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

Who is Robert Wilson, and what does he want?

Both questions are complex. The first question is easier to answer than the second.

Wilson was born 48 years ago amid the Southern-Baptist Victorianism of Waco, Tex. His instincts must be archetypally American. They have been filtered, however, through a chic European sensibility.

He is a futurist and a visionary. He is an artist, a director, a designer, a producer, a therapist, a showman and a missionary. He stages operas, plays, musicals, happenings. He writes. He even creates his own furniture.

He is an aesthetic zealot and a gutsy iconoclast. He is an auteur and a provocateur.

He stretches stylization until it becomes abstraction, often inspired abstraction. He paints a stage with color, accents with shadow. He redefines traditional concepts of both space and time.

Wilson's time moves at a measured, languid pace. It is determinedly unnatural pace. For those willing to suspend temporal disbelief, the slowness can quickly become hypnotic.

He respects no conventional limits involving endurance, no common parameters in matters of perception. He has survived long enough to withstand several changings of the avant-garde.

He works in studios and theaters, arenas and opera houses. He respects no language barriers. He demands enormous expenditures of time and money.

He subjects his actors to strict kinetic signals and taxing physical poses. He makes his own aesthetic rules and, when the spirit moves him, blithely breaks them.

He flinches neither from controversy nor from obscurity. He once regaled attendants at a press conference in Yugoslavia with a repetitive 12-hour recitation of the word "dinosaur," during which he carefully sliced onion after onion after onion.

Some observers found the demonstration fraught with poetic meaning and pristine truth. Others dismissed it as arrogant gimmickry.

Wilson's supporters acclaim him as a genius, impure and not necessarily simple. They hail his unfettered spirit, his delicate control of visual imagery, his daring manipulation of prop and symbol.

Moved by the so-called silence play "Deafman Glance"--running merely seven hours, it is a relatively short effort by Wilson standards--the poet Louis Aragon once published a characteristically surreal tribute:

"I never saw anything more beautiful in the world since I was born. Never, never has any play come anywhere near this one."

Wilson shrugs off idolatry, or at least pretends to. "I'm not a guru," he has declared. "I'm an artist. I hate this mystique around my name."

The mystique has not gone unchallenged. Wilson's stubborn detractors find his work unbearably boring, unbelievably demanding, disastrously stilted, hopelessly smug.

One distinguished New York theater critic once dismissed a Wilson opus as "an artistic and human scandal." The non-believer insisted that such work could appeal only to "escapees from thought, feeling and confrontations with reality."

Even Wilson's most ardent detractors admit, albeit grudgingly, that he is no dilettante. Although he may be demanding, alienating, perplexing and disturbing, he also is thoughtful, serious, sensitive. There is method in his method.

He likes to shock, it would seem. It would also seem that he doesn't like to shock for the sake of shocking.

He thinks big and he thinks long. He asks much of his audiences. He doesn't suffer fools, period.

He doesn't have to suffer fools. He has amassed a huge coterie of passionate, dedicated admirers in Europe. Meanwhile, in America, he has remained a cult figure for the enlightened few--a prophet with limited honor. Now that may be changing.

What does Wilson want?

Who knows? Maybe even Wilson doesn't know.

He enjoys the reputation of an artistic Superman. He comes to an interview looking like Clark Kent.

The locale is the temporarily vacated office of the general director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The time is 5:50. In 1 1/2 hours, the curtain will rise on the gala opening of the season and, not incidentally, on the American premiere of Wilson's controversial production of Gluck's "Alceste."

This is the time when directors are supposed to pace nervously backstage, to recheck mechanics, to institute 11th-hour changes, to bestow last-minute confidences upon cast and technicians. This is the time when directors chomp antacids, chain-smoke, enact desperation tantrums, offer sacrifices to the pagan gods of theater and massage prima-donna egos.

It is not the time to meet the press. Wilson doesn't seem to know that. He had chosen this time, and it doesn't seem to faze him.

He arrives promptly, led by opera-company guides and trailed by a supportive young aide de camp. He brings no onions, performs no one-note monologues.

His gangly 6-foot-4 frame is impeccably tuxedoed. No trendy rags for this futurist. He wears his hair straight and relatively short, sports dark horn-rimmed specs. He could pass muster as a pre-Ivy-League headmaster.

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."

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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