He Stands Alone
Eleven things to know about legendary lighting designer and director Robert Wilson, creator of HGO’s new production of Puccini’s Turandot.
Wilson, 80, was born in Waco to Baptist parents. As a child he had little interest in hunting and fishing like his dad, instead putting on “strange little plays,” as John Rockwell described them in a 1998 Texas Monthly profile, in the family garage. For a time Wilson studied business administration at UT, but he was unhappy. In 1962 he moved to New York, where he studied architecture at Pratt and immersed himself in experimental theater and dance. After a short post-college return to Waco, he left the Lone Star State for good.
For decades he felt more welcome in Europe.
Wilson made his name with Einstein on the Beach, which he created with Philip Glass, and which debuted at the Avignon Festival in 1976. The intermission-less, plot-less, four-act, five-hour opera was a sensation in France, one of many European triumphs (and if that sounds long, consider that an earlier Wilson work clocked in at 168 hours). And so for many years he mostly worked abroad.
Yet Texas is ever-present for Wilson.
“I grew up in Texas, and I guess Texas is still in my head when I want more space around everything,” he told the New York Times in an interview about a 1984 revival of Einstein on the Beach. “Texas is in all my work." In his Texas Monthly piece, Rockwell concurred: “It is no stretch to sense the state at the core of his work. There is an emptiness to the Wilson stage, a flatness of contour and mood, a lucidity that would be instantly familiar to anyone who has seen the light, land, and overarching sky of West Texas.”
Houston was the exception to Wilson’s chilly stateside reception
Former HGO General Director David Gockley was a champion of Wilson’s work, and in 1992 the company staged the U.S. premiere of his Parsifal production. “Will this slow-motion Parsifal exasperate Houston's faithful subscribers right out of their seats and into the street?” the New York Times wondered. "In some cases, it probably will," it quoted Gockley as having said, "but it won't be a worrisome number.” Wilson also directed and designed Four Saints in Three Acts for HGO in 1996, and was an associate artist at the Alley Theatre. HGO Director of Artistic Planning and Chorus Director Richard Bado, an admirer of Wilson for his “specific vision of what theater is” and his “great respect for the music,” tells Cues that working with Wilson on Parsifal and Four Saints in Three Acts “was definitely a high point of my career.”
He values light first.
Arthur Homberg’s The Theater of Robert Wilson quotes him thusly: “Light is the most important part of theater. It brings everything together, and everything depends on it. From the beginning I was concerned with light, how it reveals objects, how objects change when light changes, how light creates space, how space changes when light changes. Light determines what you see and how you see it. If you know how to light, you can make shit look like gold. I paint, I build, I compose with light. Light is a magic wand.”
Wilson’s process is expensive.
He requires a good deal more rehearsal hours than what would be needed for a “standard” opera to refine the intricacies of his lighting design. And while all operas enlist lightwalkers—who stand in for the performers on stage to help designers create their lighting—Wilson’s wear costumes, wigs, and makeup for their sessions, so that he can get every tiny detail perfect. It is perhaps no surprise that Wilson’s rehearsals, Bado explains, “are very focused and intense.”
Wilson is also a painter, sculptor, video artist, and furniture maker, and his pieces have been displayed in museums and galleries across the world. Another Houston connection: in 1991, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston displayed Wilson’s artworks in the
exhibition “Robert Wilson’s Vision,” which included a sound environment by Hans Peter Kuhn. An accompanying book included contributions from Susan Sontag, William S. Burroughs, and Richard Serra.
In 1992 Wilson founded the Watermill Center on Long Island, which he calls “a laboratory for the arts and humanities providing a global community the time, space, and freedom to create and inspire.” The New York Times called the center, which hosts summer workshops, residency programs, exhibitions, lectures, performances, and more, “his own Bayreuth.”
He has worked with—just about everyone:
Philip Glass. Lucinda Childs. Tom Waits. Martin McDonagh. Mikhail Baryshnikov. Willem Dafoe. Ali Hossaini. Lady Gaga. Tony Bennett. Lou Reed. Pussy Riot. Tilda Swinton. Robert Mapplethorpe. Martha Graham. The list goes on…
He believes the stylized movements that are his signature are more honest.
“To see someone try to act natural onstage seems so artificial,” the New York Times quoted Wilson as saying this November, when his Turandot was staged to Paris. “If you accept it as being something artificial, in the long run, it seems more natural, for me.”
For Wilson, “theater is about one thing.”
“And if it’s not about one thing—it’s too complicated,” he told Opera Wire when the Lithuanian National Opera staged his Turandot. “When we see Turandot for the first time, she’s up in the air, very high, alone. In the end, she stands near the audience and the entire company and Calaf are standing behind, in a distance. So she keeps standing alone.”