Are You Ready For digital Opera

Justin Davidson is music critic at Newsday in 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.)

The story of the gestation of "Monsters" begins in July 1993 when, energized by the "Einstein" tour, Wilson and Glass holed up at the director's Long Island retreat at Water Mill--an abandoned Western Union laboratory in the middle of the woods, a few miles from the summertime Jeep jams and designer ice cream boutiques of the Hamptons. Glass talked, and the taciturn Wilson drew, taping his quick sketches in rows on the long, bare walls.

The fantastical, evocative images he came up with seemed calculated to make a producer cringe: A 10-yard foot clumped across the stage; a helicopter--"not one of those 'Miss Saigon' helicopters but a real, full-sized Huey chopper" is how Wheeler describes it--twinkled over a vast landscape, until a hawk arrived to pluck it out of the sky.

"It was the sort of thing where you look at this and you say, 'No, no, no!' " Wheeler recounts. "But at the same time, you look and say, 'Yes, yes, yes!' "

Wheeler, 48, is an optimistic sort, a born facilitator of the far-out: His stable includes perpetually angry performance artist Diamanda Galas and choreographer Twyla Tharp. He is also a businessman with an ambiguous relationship to the bottom line.

"Every time I tried to do something that was completely commercial, it was a flop," Wheeler says proudly. "I measure each year by whether I'm still standing at the end of it. I'm not quite a philanthropy--but close." And so, rather than sending Wilson back to his sketch pad to come up with something more practical, Wheeler instantly started trying to calculate what it would cost to put the director's fantasies on the stage. The answer, even for the sanguine Wheeler, was "too much."

Wilson, 57, and Glass, 60, are the odd couple of the American avant-garde. Wilson dresses, moves and speaks with the deliberate care of someone intent on executing those tasks perfectly. His smiles are infrequent and reluctant, his clothing mostly black, his absorption total. He prefers sketching--quickly, even sloppily at times--to the slow labor of speaking, as if the subconscious were a more comfortable place for him to spend his time. For decades, interviewers have been asking him to explain the inexplicable, to pin down the source of his images, and he has developed a formula he can live with.

Ask Wilson where his images come from, and he invariably produces a well-worked-out explanation of surrealist imagery, phrased a la Gertrude Stein and delivered in a deadpan monotone: "If you take a computer and you put a calculator on top of the computer, that's one thing. But if you take a computer and you put a stone on top of the computer, that's another thing. And maybe it's easier to see the computer with a stone on top of it than it is to see the computer with a calculator on top of it."

Ask him what his images mean, and he simply renounces meaning: "I don't think that way. I don't try to interpret these images or impose anything on them. If I touch this wood, and then I touch this metal, one is warmer and one is colder, and that's something I experience. And this experience is a way of thinking. The mind is a muscle. Thinking has to do with the whole body."

Glass is more voluble, more slovenly and more companionable, with perpetually tousled hair and permanent shadows under his eyes that could be either melancholy or fatigue. Both men agree, though, that they think and see the world in similar ways, deriving structure from loose associations, letting narratives compose themselves and savoring undecipherable mysteries. Glass illustrates the ineffable collision of ideas that constitutes the duo's working method with an anecdote about the project's title.

"Bob had been working on a solo 'Hamlet,' and he was having trouble with his lines," Glass recounts. "Every time he came to the line about 'ministers of grace,' he always pronounced it 'monsters of grace.' And he said, 'Why don't we call it that?' So we agreed. Then, a year later, he said to me, 'What's the title mean?' I said, 'Well, Bob, grace is a state of being which is divine in origin, and the monsters refers to us--it's a mixture of divinity and the human condition.' And he said, 'Oh, OK.' "

If, as Glass recalls, a year passed between the two parts of that conversation, the creative work itself was moving at an equally desultory pace. It was March 1996--three years after the Water Mill sessions--before Wheeler managed to organize another workshop, this one in his own offices. As Wilson's drawings were projected on a screen, Glass improvised on a keyboard. This continued for a week.

By this time, Wheeler had begun to think of using computers to help with the technical aspects of the piece. A CD-ROM mock-up that could be sent ahead, he figured, might help local stagehands at every stop visualize the show and learn its precision-calculated timings. Someone suggested he go talk to a married couple, Jeff Kleiser and Diana Walczak, who had recently opened an Eastern branch of their Hollywood digital animation studio in North Adams, Mass., on the still-barren grounds of a planned arts campus called MassMOCA. As it turned out, the meeting, which took place in September 1996, solved all of Wheeler's technical problems at a single stroke--and created a plethora of new ones.

Kleiser and Walczak had been doing for years on the computer what Wheeler believed he needed to do in a theater: manipulating time and space so that they both seemed elastic. The movies that the Kleiser-Walczak Construction Co. had populated with computerized stunt dolls and busied with rapid-fire effects--"Stargate," "Clear and Present Danger," "Judge Dredd"--may have had little to do with the rigorously noncommercial theater of Robert Wilson, but both dealt with a mysterious visual world in which the unreal looks vivid, brilliant and undeniably there.

At 43, Kleiser is a boyish-looking senior citizen in the digital world. While he was still a child in Philadelphia, his older brother, future film director Randal Kleiser ("Grease"), shanghaied him into helping with his home movies. Later, a college course in computer music galvanized his interest in the computer as artistic tool, and in 1974, while he was still an undergraduate at Colgate in upstate New York, Kleiser formed his first company, Digital Effects, with a group of friends. The company folded in 1986 and Kleiser took a job with Omnibus, a Hollywood special-effects outfit.

Walczak, 36, arrived in Hollywood in the 1980s with her own peculiarly useful constellation of skills: She had studied sculpture and engineering at Boston University and worked at Harvard Medical School, doing medical illustrating on computer. Eventually, Kleiser and Walczak formed their own team and specialized in building Synthespians, lifelike digital actors who would run any risk, die any death and never whine about the size of their trailer.

When Wheeler described the fantastical--and fantastically expensive--scenes Wilson wanted to stage, it was Walczak who suggested they dispense with theaters altogether and create their own reality from scratch.

"I was still stuck with the conventions of stagecraft, imagining the size of the truck we would need on tour," Wheeler recalls. "Diana was inviting me to think of something completely new. The more I talked to her, the more I realized we weren't talking about duplicating the experience of theater but of exploding its confines. It dawned on me that technology had caught up with Bob Wilson."

At that point, the pace picked up. Wilson, Glass and Wheeler converged in Paris and decided to turn "Monsters" into a computer animation project. Wheeler began assembling a consortium of co-commissioners (including UCLA) to cover the $1.7-million budget. Glass retreated to his studio in Brazil to write the music, choosing as his text the poetry of 13th century Sufi mystic Jalaluddin Rumi, in which, as in the "Song of Solomon," erotic and religious passion are inextricably entwined.

"I was a little apprehensive about the computer imagery being too cold," Glass says, "and I wanted something passionate and human." The score too is redolent of desert heat and spices, thanks to sound designer Kurt Munkacsi, who made the electronic keyboards sound like an exotic orchestra made up of saz, jubus, tzouras, Ethiopian double harp, Chinese zheng, ukelin, Iranian finger cymbal and a souk full of other instruments.

In March 1997, Wilson and Glass met in Manhattan again for a third workshop, playing Glass' work tape for hours every day, reordering the scenes and adjusting the timings--not into an overarching narrative but into an abstract structure of vignettes.

A few months later, KWCC, having hired 20 more animators for its MassMOCA studio and opened a small Manhattan outpost, began working on the project full time.

In this high-speed era that the computer largely created, it comes as something of a surprise to realize that constructing pictures by computer can be nearly as long and painstaking a task as copying out illuminated manuscripts was in the Middle Ages. It might take Wilson just a moment to conjure up that severed hand in his fermenting mind, but to make it eerily realistic and lend it the illusion of warmth and weight is an act of slow, tortuous creation and enormous computational power.

Even virtual flesh, it turns out, comes from clay. First, Walczak sculpts an 18-inch hand, then a grid of lines is drawn over its curved surface. Each of the thousands of resulting coordinates is plotted, one at a time, in three-dimensional space by a measuring arm connected to a computer. Then, the geometric hand is wrapped in flesh-colored skin, animated and illuminated using software that can simulate a light source.

"It takes someone a couple of days to build a hand," Kleiser says cheerily. "But once you've got it, you've got it forever."

"It's very technical," Wilson says. "You get something done, then you wait a few weeks, and there's just a little more done. I can't just change it right there. I have to trust a lot more. It's less immediate."

For their part, Kleiser and Walczak were sometimes stumped by Wilson's penchant for cryptic aphorisms.

"We have to try to figure out what he's thinking and sometimes it's a language we're not familiar with," Walczak says. "Once, when he said something was too sweet, I though he meant too saturated with color, until finally one of his lighting people told us it meant there's too much red in it."

"Sometimes," Kleiser adds, smiling admiringly at the mysteries of the artistic temperament, "he sees a color he doesn't like and it changes his mood for the whole meeting."

In the beginning, Wilson handled the discomfort of seeing his control diluted and his images reduced to gray geometric shapes and wire-frame figures by disappearing into other projects and sending in his assistant Giuseppe Frigeni as creative envoy. Frigeni, a phlegmatic young Italian who shares his boss' taste for funereal suits, was entrusted with translating between the theatrical and digital teams, but his native idiom too was theater and he did not always appreciate the implications of his requests. There was the scene of the family on the roof of the floating house, for instance, for which Frigeni faxed over pages of notes, plotting out each Synthespian's facial expression, gesture and turn of the head.

"In a theater," Kleiser points out, "you can just tell some actors to do it and they do. For us, that represents three or four months of hard labor."

But if the slow, methodical teamwork of computer animation kept Wilson uncomfortably distanced from the creative process, it also allowed him to dispense with the frustrations of dealing with human performers. While KWCC's computers were dutifully, untiringly calculating images all through each night, Wilson spent the first days of March nervously enmeshed in the high-tension, high-stakes rehearsals for "Lohengrin" at the Met. The director stood at the lighting console in the darkened auditorium and his gentle, almost incantatory baritone came over the house PA system. "You should be walking against the music," the voice said to a group of shuffling choristers. "Our instinct is to move with the music, but there's so much more tension this way. It makes us listen better, and it makes us see better as well."

After a few more ragged tries, he dispatched Frigeni onstage to show the singers how to walk with robotic grace, arms pinioned and spine erect. The movement Wilson wanted was slow, ceremonial, almost unbearably taut and extremely difficult for the uninitiated to sustain.

"I was at the chiropractor right after the first rehearsal from standing so stiff," huffed soprano Christine Goerke, who was covering for Deborah Voigt in the role of Elsa. Some critics at the opening night complained that the singers' stiff stances eroded their concentration and dragged down their intonation.

The computer absolves the director of such fleshly concerns. In the world Kleiser and Walczak have created for him, Wilson can explode people into their constituent body parts and send a boy cycling down a pathway so impossibly slowly that it takes him nine minutes to cover the equivalent of 150 feet. Synthespians, without feelings or failings, may constitute the perfect Wilson cast.

Five years after the first discussion about using objects, light and sound, and a few weeks before the L.A. date, Glass' music is about to go into rehearsal, but the images are still slowly taking shape, moving jerkily around the computer screen at one frame per second. Kleiser and Walczak have made the four-hour trip from North Adams to New York for a meeting with Wilson.

"While we were driving down from Massachusetts this morning, data was streaming down at the same time," Kleiser says. "It still is. If Bob is late, it will just mean we'll have more stuff to show him." Wilson is late--by five hours, which is about normal for him--and the session continues well into the night.

The following week, he arrives only three hours behind schedule and by midafternoon he, Kleiser and Walczak are clustered around the computer, scrutinizing a scene of a granite tray floating in midair and bearing a sparse arrangement of porcelain cups and bowls. Suddenly, almost subliminally, a snake, huge and glistening, materializes on the tray, winds among the crockery and mysteriously disappears. Wilson is editing shadows, softening a line here, muting a glare there, arranging more hyper-real, anti-naturalistic details than he ever could in a theater.

"This surface is quite beautiful," he says, pointing to an empty patch of stone. "Very delicious."

But the rhythm of the scene is not right, he decides, and he begins to recalculate timings. "How long do they look at this?" he muses. "I mean, I can look at it for a long time, but most people can't." Eventually, he gets up to make a phone call and a tired-looking Walczak drifts over to the reception desk to graze at the permanent spread of fruit, cheese and sashimi rolls that compensates for Wilson's habit of working straight through mealtimes.

"I wish he'd stop changing things," she says. "This is crunch time. He has no idea what a miracle it is for this to get on the screen. We should have had three years, instead of seven months." (If this were a commercial project, it would also cost over $10 million, she estimates.)

As it is, only eight of 13 vignettes will be ready for the Royce Hall performance, and Wilson begins thinking of ways to stage the five others by moving the singers out of the pit and weaving in the sort of lighting and theatrical mechanics he is used to. Among his and his collaborators' concerns is the fear that audiences will grow fatigued during the course of 68 minutes of stereoscopic images. Even half-hour Imax 3-D features have a tendency to cause headaches.

"With 3-D, usually the whole gimmick is that they stick stuff in your face," Kleiser explains. "Otherwise, what's the point? The cause of the headache is that you focus your eyes on the screen, but you cross them to see something that looks closer. Your eye muscles normally don't do that." But that won't be a problem here, Walczak adds, since the stereoscopy of "Monsters" makes as much use of infinite distance as it does of startling nearness. "We're working with depth in an artistic way," she says.

Wheeler and Glass are less confident, and they're reserving judgment until the L.A. performance, enjoying the notion of unveiling a work in progress--the beta version, a computer specialist might call it.

"It takes 18 to 20 performances before I begin to understand how all the elements work together," Glass says. "People ask me when is the premiere, and I say, 'Which premiere?' Which is not to say that the piece might not stay exactly the way we do it in L.A. The conventional idea is that as a piece goes on, it can become more refined, but it can also become more conventional."

Ten days before the film must go to print, Wheeler is still rejiggering the budget to account for the new elements of Wilson's staging.

"This is about invention, and invention means change," he says cheerfully. "And that means that schedules will be made up and thrown out. Some people see turmoil as a threat. I don't. Turmoil is a partner."

*

* "Monsters of Grace 1.0," Royce Hall, UCLA, Wednesday through April 26, 8 p.m., and Saturday and next Sunday, 2 p.m. $16-$35. (310) 825-2101.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Royce Redux WHAT: Royce Hall, one of the four original buildings on the UCLA campus, built in 1929, is reopening after four years of seismic renovation. Its offices and classrooms house several academic departments of the university's College of Letters and Sciences; its 1,829-seat auditorium is the primary venue for concerts, plays and dance presented by the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts.

WHEN: Royce has been closed since the January 1994 Northridge earthquake. "Monsters of Grace 1.0," which runs Wednesday through April 26, will reopen the auditorium to the public; the classrooms and offices have been in use since January.

WHAT'S NEW: The building has been reinforced with more than 25.5 million pounds of concrete and 1.8 million pounds of steel; its facade and public spaces have been restored, as closely as possible, to their original looks, in keeping with the building's eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places. The auditorium's acoustics have been re-engineered, in part to deal with the building's new mass and in part to improve on the sound of spoken word in the hall.

THE COST: $68.3 million, paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the California Office of Emergency Services and private gifts.

GETTING THERE: Royce is located in the northeast area of the campus. It is served by parking structure No. 2, accessible via Westholme Avenue.

INFORMATION: For a schedule of public events at Royce Hall, call the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts, (310) 825-2101.

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