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.
Weaving together characters from "Alice in Wonderland" with the biography of Charles Dodgson, who wrote as Lewis Carroll, Wilson's "Alice" is a tragedy of sexual obsession. (Dodgson reportedly was a pedophile.) Despite flashes of humor, Wilson's "Alice" is dark. Featuring sexual desire as self-laceration, love as mirage, and lonely human beings rushing headlong toward death, "Alice" sounds a disconsolate note. The surrealistic songs of collaborator Tom Waits express the plangent mood of the piece: "Hang me in a bottle like a cat/Let the crows pick me clean but for my hat/Where the wailing of a baby/Meets the footsteps of the dead/We're all mad here." "Alice," Waits says in his sandpaper voice, "is a love story, so I wrote romantic songs about snakes in a jar."
Wilson has worked with a staggering array of artists. And "Alice" is Wilson's and Waits' second collaboration; their first was "Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets" in 1991. "Bob lives in the subconscious, where music and poetry live," says Waits. "The theater is an invalid. Bob takes this invalid, yanks it out of its wheelchair, gives it a good kick, and makes it walk. When you go down the rabbit hatch with Bob, you never know where the adventure will lead."
And his adventures have been numerous, surprising for an artist who refuses to compromise his vision. In Paris, the Opera Bastille recently announced that it will mount six Wilson productions in the 1994-'95 season, unheard-of exposure for one director at a major opera house in a single season. In June, Wilson's installation "MEMORY/LOSS"--a bust of Wilson deteriorating in a Mongolian desert--won the Golden Lion Award, first prize for sculpture at the heralded Biennale Arts Festival in Venice.
Director, playwright, performer, painter, sculptor, installation artist, video artist, sound designer, set designer, lighting designer, choreographer--Wilson is a phenomenon and his work cuts across genres: drama, dance, opera, visual art, performance art, video, film, music. The range and importance of his work have no parallel in contemporary theater. What astonishes Wilson most about his astonishing career? "That my work ever found an audience."
Some critics blast Wilson's work as boring, vapid and pretentious. Other critics refer to his productions as a theater of images, and Wilson's stage pictures dramatize how much, how quickly, how vividly the eye understands. For him, lights, costumes, movement and set all speak different languages, each telling a different tale. "Wilson's theater offers a more complicated pleasure than normal theater. When you're young, you're just f------," claims Heiner Mueller, a leading German playwright, "you don't even see the body of the woman. But when you get old, you need more and more complications to have pleasure."
Some of the Babbitts who control the purse strings of arts funding in America, however, pronounced the complexities of Wilson's avant-garde art confusing. For example, in 1984, the Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival canceled "the CIVIL warS," a 12-hour theatrical epic that was the director's most ambitious work, ranging through history to plumb the issue of civil strife. The French, Dutch, Germans, Italians and Japanese had produced segments of Wilson's exploration of the roots of violence, but Wilson could not raise the money in America to bring the work together in Los Angeles. David Bowie as Abraham Lincoln reciting the Gettysburg Address in Japanese sent American corporate donors into paroxysms of anger. A honcho at Warner Communications retorted, "If Europeans think this is so great, let them pay for it."
It was a crushing defeat for the indomitable Texan. At the time, Wilson, who rarely shows emotion in public, had to fight back tears during a BBC interview. "Can you imagine all this for something that didn't happen?" he said, gesturing to the hundreds of set designs scattered around the room. "I'm sad," he has lamented. "It's hard for an American to get his work done in America. Diana Vreeland says some years you're in, some years you're out."
"That was the last time I tried to produce my own work," the director said recently over dinner at a rambunctious student hangout in Austin, Tex. His voice meters out cadences with Prussian militarism. Everything Wilson does--on the stage and off--is meticulously controlled. He folds his hands like a well-brought-up boy in a roomful of adults. Formal, polite, distant, Wilson is a perplexing mix of diffidence and hauteur.
"I was left with a tremendous debt. Work in America was scarce, and the fees are not so high. To survive artistically and to pay off my debt, I had to work in Europe. There I worked with many different companies and artists. Theater in Europe is more sophisticated than in America. Doing so many and so many different kinds of productions extended my range. So the L.A. cancellation had positive effects, too."
Europe nurtured Wilson's genius, and through the years he has developed an intelligent, devoted audience on the continent. Author Susan Sontag was surprised when, on a recent visit to Sarajevo, conversation turned not to survival and politics, but to theater. "When you sit in someone's apartment, a sniper's bullet comes through, shattering the window. You meet people one day. The next day you find out they've been shot. The first conversation I had there was about Bob Wilson. The people I was with were familiar with his work and wanted to learn about his recent activities. Outside, bombs exploding. Inside, a sophisticated discussion about Wilson's work--the last topic I had expected to address in Sarajevo."
Other talented directors of Wilson's generation who emerged in vanguard theater "have stopped working or didn't continue or their audiences didn't grow," Wilson says. "(My) work seems to have found an audience so far for the '90s. I don't know exactly why." He flourished because he fled the artistic restraints of America. Now, at the pinnacle of his success, Wilson is orchestrating a return. His arduous efforts to work in his homeland are beginning to bear fruit, just as he is starting to cut back on theater to pursue more private modes of artistic creation: painting and sculpture.
"FOR AS LONG AS I CAN REMEMBER, BOB HAS BEEN ACTING AND DIRECTING," recollects Suzanne Lambert, Wilson's kid sister. "He was always putting on shows. He would stand me in a chair and have me sing for our baby-sitter. I don't know where he got it. There wasn't much theater in Waco, and no one else in our family has any artistic talent. It's something he was born with."
Family is an obsessive theme in Wilson's work. The family member he talks about most in his public lectures is his deceased mother, Loree. He portrays her as an unemotional and controlling woman whom everyone, even his father, feared. It is a rare lecture in which he fails to mention that the only time she embraced him was the day he left for college.
About his deceased father, Diuguid, a former city manager of Waco, Wilson often says, "He was a curious man." The anecdotes Wilson tells depict him as a distant, successful lawyer, punctual to a fault. In contrast, Wilson always arrives late. "My tardiness irritated my father," Wilson says, smiling like a cherub. Never close, their relationship became particularly strained when Wilson resolved to pursue a career in the arts. A recurrent motif in "CIVIL warS" is the cruelty of castrating fathers. After his father saw one of Wilson's plays, he told the director, "Son, not only is it sick, it's abnormal."
Child abuse--physical and emotional--has figured conspicuously in Wilson's oeuvre . Medea (Wilson has staged two versions of the Greek myth) is his favorite mom. Wounded children have always elicited his empathy. Before he became involved in theater, he was a teacher, working with terminally ill patients and handicapped children in New York. Two adolescents--Raymond Andrews and Christopher Knowles--have deeply influenced Wilson.
Wilson's meeting Raymond Andrews, a hearing-impaired African-American teen-ager, was perhaps the crucial point in his career. Walking down a street in Summit, N.J., in 1968 shortly after he had graduated from the Pratt Institute of Art, Wilson saw a policeman beating a teen over the head with a club. The boy was making strange, inarticulate sounds. Wilson intervened and accompanied the officer and boy to the police station. Later, he found out that the boy lived in two rooms with 12 other family members and had been declared uneducable. Wilson adopted the youth to try to educate him. As it turns out, the boy also taught Wilson. "I thought I thought in words," the director recalls, "and I was curious about how he thought. Then I realized he thought in visual signs. He began to make drawings to point out various things to me that I wouldn't notice and that he would be more sensitive to because of his being deaf."
Wilson explored Raymond's body language in movement workshops. From these workshops and inspired by Raymond's drawings, Wilson put together a play without words in 1970 called "Deafman Glance" at the University of Iowa. The following year, the play--which Raymond performed in--traveled to New York, Rome, Amsterdam and Paris, where France's leading men of letters lavished kudos on it. Europeans at that time were particularly open to experimental drama from America.
A few years later, Wilson heard a strange vocal tape that most people would have discounted as nonsense. But the insistent rhythms intrigued Wilson, who asked to meet the speaker: Chris Knowles, an autistic youth, who arranges words according to sound and visual patterns. With Chris, Wilson turned his attention to language and its foibles, and their collaboration resulted in "Einstein on the Beach." Chris wrote large sections of the text, in which language has a nervous breakdown.
"Einstein," which Wilson created with minimalist composer Philip Glass in 1976, remains one of his most celebrated works. A poetic meditation on the patron saint of relativity, "Einstein" revolves around three visual motifs: a train, a spaceship, a courtroom. The mop-haired physicist of doom stands trial for having made the atom bomb possible. A non-narrative, mystical farce, "Einstein" rampages through the absurdity of the human condition with unflagging brio. It brings together music, dance, drama and visual art in one big bang--the nuclear fission of theater. And it helped spark a resurgence in the importance of opera as an arena for the most innovative stage work.
" 'Einstein,' " Philip Glass reflected recently during a telephone conversation from Brazil, "strikes me as more radical in 1993 than it did in 1976 because theater has become much more conventional. In the '70s, a lot of experimentation was going on, but theater in America has degenerated. Now everyone keeps one eye on the box office. 'Einstein' was written with idealism. Our intentions were purely aesthetic. 'Einstein' has a tremendous impact on young audiences today. They have no idea you could get away with making theater in such a non-traditional way."
International critics rank "Einstein" as one of America's most important and innovative operas. Ironically, it saw the light of day thanks to a grant from the French government and premiered at a theater festival in Avignon. Nearly 60,000 spectators cheered the 1992 revival that Alan Kriegsman of the Washington Post hailed as one of "the crucial, Zeitgeist -defining artistic creations" of the 20th Century. Nevertheless, three times the Library of Congress refused to copyright the visual portion of the work, saying that "Einstein" was a suite of drawings, not theater.
One moral emerges loud and clear from the saga of Robert Wilson: America doesn't support its avant-garde artists. "Bob's work has the strongest signature in theater today," Glass says. "He changed how theater communicates. It disturbs me that most Americans have never had a chance to see a production by the preeminent theater director of our time." Only three of Wilson's dozens of works have played in Los Angeles: "I Was Sitting on My Patio" in 1977, a workshop of "King Lear" in 1985, and "the Knee Plays" in 1986.
Wilson wanted "Einstein" to be seen in the States, but to bring it to New York's Metropolitan Opera House, which he rented in 1976 for only two nights. The director ended up with a personal debt of $140,000. When Wilson's father heard of the loss, he said, "Son, I'm impressed. I didn't know you were smart enough to lose so much money."
IN MARCH, WILSON RETURNED TO the University of Texas, Austin, where, to please his father, he had once studied business administration. Since Wilson wants to pass on the tricks of the trade he has learned, he agreed to direct drama students in a workshop of Jean Genet's "The Balcony." This masterpiece of the absurd takes place in a bordello as a bloody revolution explodes: the house of illusion inside mirrors the political tumble outside. Like all forms of make-believe, Genet suggests, politics and sex are a willing suspension of disbelief in which hope triumphs over experience. With an iron fist, fantasy rules Parliament and the bedroom. "I like this play," Wilson says, grinning like the Cheshire cat, "because it's so crazy."
He establishes an easy rapport with students, who take to his playful humor. Each morning the students, seated around Wilson, beg the accomplished raconteur for another story. Their favorite is about Lady Bird Johnson and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who visited Austin when Wilson was an undergraduate. Telling the anecdote, Wilson slips back into a broad Texas drawl that sends the students into gales of giggles. The long-winded chancellor delivered a two-hour speech in German, which no one understood. In a fuchsia straw hat, Lady Bird, sitting next to Adenauer on the dais in the Capitol, couldn't hide her boredom. During his interminable oration, she kept waving wildly to people she recognized in the audience, screaming out over the chancellor, "Howdy."
While Wilson can be playful, his formal workshop methods take some getting used to. Since the students want to talk about what "The Balcony" means in literary terms, Wilson lets them. Meanwhile, not looking at anyone, he sits at a long table, drawing. After the students have their say, he gets up, walks over to an easel that has an enormous 6' by 3' sheet of paper on it. He diagrams the stage of Houston's Alley Theatre.
"The first thing you must know as an actor or director is the space you will inhabit. See the architecture, imagine where things can happen in space." He then shows them the drawings he made while they were babbling away about the lack of sexual fulfillment in Genet's cathouse. "There will be open elevators and closed boxes to create different kinds of spaces. I want screens of lace, chicken wire, curtains of red velvet and gold lame, glass beads and mosquito nets that can fly down and up and constantly change the sense of space. I also want oversized props rolled on stage, like a big pistol that can shoot, and a jungle gym."
Wilson asks a student to direct the first scene. The student has the three characters clustered together downstage--Madam Irma, dominatrix of the brothel; the prostitute, and the client, who dresses up as a bishop to hear the whore's confession, which acts as an aphrodisiac.
All three have their scripts in hand and read the scene. Wilson jumps up. "Put your scripts down--no text," he commands. "Just look at the spatial relationships." Gently, Wilson points out the weaknesses in the student's visual composition and his uninteresting use of stage space. The director seats the bishop on a high platform at center to draw the eye up and give the tableau a focal point. He turns the bishop around. "It's more mysterious to see his back," he says. He has the two women huddled downstage left. The separation of the women from the man creates tension and dramatizes the intimacy between the females and the underlying antagonism between them and the male. "That's an opening look," Wilson says. "What do you want to happen next?"
"Wilson is inspiring because he taught me not to be afraid of my imagination and that there are other ways of doing theater beyond realism," says Carey Russell, an acting student. "I'll never be an avant-garde director," chimes in Nina LeNoir, a directing student, "but Bob opened my eyes and taught me how to see space, and that's important no matter what style you work in."
Like any good teacher, Wilson empowers students to explore their own creativity; he does not dictate. Like any Southern gentleman, he knows charm is the most potent weapon of coercion.
Currently, his creative process takes place in three stages: Workshop A (Design); Workshop B (Movement); Workshop C (text and tech). "The workshop process lets me get my arms around a piece," says Wilson. "A complex work needs time to grow inside." So after each workshop, he pauses to allow the work to gestate in the unconscious. "Go home and dream about it now," the director exhorts actors after the preliminary work.
At the outset of production, Wilson creates a storyboard. The drawings indicate the set design for each scene. "First I create an architectural form," he says. "Then I fill the form in." Only after the visuals are well advanced does Wilson turn his attention to the text.
"Actors always start with the voice and language. That's wrong. They should start with the body. The body is an actor's most important resource. I do movement before text," he says, "to make sure it's strong enough to stand on its own two feet without words. All theater is dance. The movement must have a rhythm and structure of its own."
A cool style epitomizes the Wilson actor, as it does the Balanchine dancer (Wilson cites the choreographer as a major influence). With Wilson's interior mode of acting, a performer doesn't project an emotion, he reflects inside. Before a "CIVIL warS" rehearsal at the American Repertory Theatre (the Cambridge theater remounted the German section of "CIVIL warS" in 1985), Wilson slipped over to an actor limbering up with calisthenics and ordered him to stop jumping around. "That's not how you warm up for my work. Go into a quiet corner, face the wall, breathe deeply, meditate."
During rehearsals of Ibsen's "When We Dead Waken" in 1991, he fired an actress who appeared with disheveled hair. "An unkempt actor doesn't respect the profession. People think of artists as bohemians--bedraggled, besmirched. When I was a student at Pratt, I attended class in coat and tie. When you come to my rehearsals, you come clean, neat and combed."
"Theater is primitive in America because training is primitive in America," Wilson says. "In New York I auditioned over 80 actresses for 'When We Dead Waken.' No one knew how to speak on stage. They chopped sentences up into phrases and mumbled. They couldn't maintain a line for one sentence, let alone for an entire speech."
Isabelle Huppert acts in Wilson's French production of Virginia Woolf's novel "Orlando," which is playing in Europe this year. The French film star flourished under his tutelage. "Usually I prefer the screen," she said recently in New York. "The camera zooms in for a close-up, and like a microscope it sees into your soul. In theater you have to be much more exterior, projecting to a large auditorium. But Bob has found a way to capture interiority onstage.
"At first learning all those precisely choreographed movements was difficult," Huppert said. "But when I had them down pat and understood how they express Virginia Woolf's novel on a deep level, a big surprise came. After melting myself into Bob's highly formalistic universe, I discovered complete liberty. That formalism became a support, carving out a space where I could express myself. Structure in Bob creates freedom," Huppert said.
At the end of March, Wilson traveled to Paris to act in his video "The Death of Moliere." Scudding round the set, trailing a white nightgown, Wilson--face powdered to chalk--looks like a ghost at Versailles. At first, the notion of Wilson's playing Moliere for French TV seems as absurd as asking Charles Boyer, French matinee idol, to play Davy Crockett for PBS. But gussied up in the auburn curls of a 17th-Century peruke, Wilson bears an uncanny likeness to France's greatest author.
Lying in a canopied bed, moving his hand slowly down his stomach, barking like a dog, Wilson's death scene, like everything else he does, catches one off-guard. Finished, he sits up. "Now that I'm dead, what else do I have to do in this bed?" he asks.
"Was that the death scene?" the cameraman says with a shrug. "I didn't shoot it. I thought those were warm-up exercises. It didn't look like anyone's dying to me."
"Oh, no," Wilson moans. "If only you knew how difficult that was! How many times do you expect me to die in one day?"
"TEXAS IS ONE OF THE FEW PLACES in America where I can find work," Wilson asserts. "I enjoy coming back home." Today, Houston is welcoming him with open arms. "The Alley Theatre and Houston Grand Opera are building up audiences interested in unconventional art. I've become an associate artist of the Alley. I'll be spending more time there, making more of a commitment." According to Greg Boyd, artistic director of the Alley, Wilson will influence every aspect of the theater, from redesigning the programs to remodeling the foyer.
Wilson has also purchased an abandoned Western Union laboratory in Water Mill, Long Island, which he plans to turn into an interdisciplinary center for theater research. He hopes to bring together students and professionals from many countries to develop projects--his own as well as others'. Financed initially by foreign government cultural agencies, private foundations and individual benefactors, Water Mill will house workshops, archives, libraries, art exhibits and installations. Visual artists, choreographers, directors, actors, dancers, composers, singers, filmmakers and video artists will inspire each other, and students will learn by working with seasoned professionals.
"Water Mill," says Wilson, "will further my interest in working with young people. Young people are more open, not so set in their thinking. And they laugh more readily." Water Mill, which is out in the country, will also bring him closer to nature. "I've spent most of my life indoors, in theaters. I want to spend more time outdoors," he says.
In July, he workshopped six projects at Water Mill: his one-man version of "Hamlet," in which he acts and directs; a new musical work with Glass; Marguerite Duras' "The Malady of Death," with Lucinda Childs; "The Meek Girl," a dramatization of a Dostoevski short story, in which he acts and directs; a new piece with Hans Peter Kuhn, Europe's leading sound artist, and an installation that will show in Berlin. Also on the agenda: Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein's opera "Four Saints in Three Acts"; a jazz opera, "Paradise Lost," with text by literary icon William S. Burroughs, and a revival of "Doktor Faustus," which premiered at La Scala in 1989, at Opera Bastille. Water Mill, together with Houston, should enable Wilson to cut back on foreign commitments and spend at least eight months in America during the next two years. Although he maintains a loft in New York, Wilson has been a gypsy artist, constantly on the move. But he is anxious to settle down. "I'm American," he explains. "I don't want to wander about the rest of my life as an expatriate."
Though his environment is changing, his pace isn't. Wilson has long been a monomaniac who eats, breathes, drinks, dreams work. In Frankfurt, at the opening-night party for the cast of "King Lear" in 1990, when other directors would have relaxed and socialized, Wilson sat at a large table and diligently set about designing "The Magic Flute," which premiered in Paris a year later.
On Long Island, Wilson will have a studio, and he hopes to devote more time to sculpting, drawing and painting. European museums and private collectors have been asking for more work. Both the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston have mounted major exhibitions. "My career is turning full circle," Wilson ruminates. "I started out as a painter, then I went into theater. Now painting and sculpting are taking up more of my time. I had to do theater to learn about myself and discover my aesthetic. Onstage I found my signature--my way of seeing space and time."
Wilson's signature--he has altered the course of drama--is impossible to miss. But, sitting on the patio of a cafeteria at the University of Texas, Wilson falls pensive. After a long silence, he speaks. "I've been thinking a lot about Andy Warhol lately. Five hundred years from now people--whether they're from America or China or Mars--will stare in fascination at his portrait of Marilyn (Monroe) because it's so mysterious. The depth is on the surface. My work doesn't have a future. A production is created in and for a moment, not for eternity." But in art, as in life, Wilson cuts short any drift toward sentimentality. "Theater," says the director, "is the art of the ephemeral."