Director Robert Wilson is a giant in the contemporary theatre whose cooperation with Arvo Pärt was kicked into gear by a meeting at the Pope’s in 2009. At end of August, he spent some days in Estonia, where seeds were sown for «Adams Passion» to premiere at Noblessner Foundry next year.
Through the heaviest, almost Biblical rain I step towards Noblessner to get the interview, perhaps – for so I have been promised. This is no casual show here, one immediately detects – this is a Unique Grand Vital Event. With lots of middle-men like the Estonian organisers, Mr Wilson’s assistants, a PR-company, plus the 72-years-old maestro in the habit of being late (as I’m told and as it indeed does happen). Also, the process of putting the play up is being turned into a documentary, which is the media-coverage priority.
Alas, the luck runs out, Mr Wilson gets shrouded in the layers of communication, and the interview just does not happen. Into the rainy sky, I send a prayer e-mail... soon to be answered.
This Sunday, Mr Wilson reappears in Estonia for a moment, to hold a lecture in Tartu within the festival «Draama». To Noblessner, he will reappear in April.
Do you like rain? While you were here, it poured without end. And, what’s your favourite weather after all?
The rain was OK. I don’t like it too well but I manage. My Mother used to love rain, she liked to take walks in it. For me, the ideal weather is the fall in New England, with the air so brisk and the colours so beautiful.
How much do the external conditions affect your work, if at all?
The world is a library. Sure, the externals do have an impact, the things I hear and see, the immediate surroundings... as also the Texas landscapes where I was raised. As, also, I’m impacted by a deep inner intuition of pictures, feelings and ideas.
So how does the Noblessner Foundry feel for you, regarding «Adam’s Passion» and overall?
I think it’s superb for Arvo Pärt’s music. Acoustically, I’d say it’s like a church.
You said at press conference you first happened upon Mr Pärt’s music in the beginning of 1980ies. Dou you recall what exactly it was and what made it stand out? What was the new in it, for you?
I do not recall the definite piece but I do recall being deeply moved. His music has that inner depth not to be found elsewhere.
How easy or hard is it, to visualise or dramatise his music?
Very difficult. One needs to be careful not to overdo it, thus obstructing the audience from listening and seeing. It is important to leave space for the audience, not to decide for them.
But Arvo Pärt himself, working with him – the same good ole question –, is it easy or hard?
Working with him is a dream. I feel like there’s some inner link within us, which means there’s no need for long talk. Like the same frequency.
How much do you know ahead about what you are aiming for – and/or how much does is change with the process?
As a rule I start with a blank sheet and see what the process brings. I used to prepare and plan, but the more I’m into it, the less I plan.
You have been called a perfectionist. What is perfect?
Sunrise on the island of Bali.
I felt like you had quite a machinery around you, during the process of directing the play. For me as a journalist, it was a bit Kafkaesque. For the director, does it make it easier or harder?
I prefer to work alone, with a handful of assistants.
An earlier performance of yours was «The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin». Why was Stalin interesting for you? I was reading about how you were thinking with Philip Glass who would be the main hero for what was to become «Einstein on the Beach», that you had an idea about Hitler. Then you said something like: too cliché. Was Stalin more interesting?
I’ve done plays on central figures of our times: Sigmund Freud, Einstein, Queen Victoria, Joseph Stalin, Marie Curie. For the public, these people are usually known and that’s why people come to the theatre – to share common stories. In some sense they can be treated as gods of the era. Playwrights have always written on the gods of their times – like in Ancient Greece they did dramas on Athena, Heracles etc.
In France, you’re coming out with Jean Genet’s «The Blacks», in November. Do you like hip-hop?
I do. By the way, we are just now talking with Jay-Z, about doing something.
While it was written (in 1957) «The Blacks» also carried an important political context. At the time, Ghana became the first African state out of colonial power. It was the time when Africa was gradually breaking free. How much do you think about what you do perhaps received as a timely political commentary?
I’m just starting with «The Blacks» so I do not know where this is leading. As I said, I like to start with a blank sheet. My first impression of the play is it is about universal truth. Otherwise, I’d not bother.
On several occasions, you have worked with the pop star Lady Gaga. You’ve said you like her persona. But what about her music?
I just staged Lady Gaga’s performance with the legendary singer Tony Bennett. I like it a lot when she sings the music of the 40ies and 50ies. So I like her better as a jazz singer...
Let me end with a stupid yet vital and unavoidable question: what’s the function or aim of art?
Art and artists are the diaries of the era. This is one of the few things that last throughout the history. Looking back 5,000 years, art is among the few things that are remembered. In 5,000 years, no-one will remember the war in Iraq. But, possibly, they’ll be looking at today’s art.
• Set to Arvo Pärt’s «Adam’s Lament», «Tabula rasa» and «Miserere», as entwined with «Sequentie» written specifically for the play.
• Conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste
• Premieres on May 12th to 15th in Noblessner Foundry, Tallinn
• «Adam’s Passion» serves to celebrate Arvo Pärt’s 80th birthday – and the Year of Music in Estonia
Robert Wilson’s life and times
Robert Wilson is among the rare directors (perhaps the only one) to have been praised by the very Samuel Beckett to have done the latter one’s play according as he – Mr Wilson – saw fit. Mr Beckett, as we know, was very strict in his prescriptions and his visions, and suffered no thing unauthorised. But he did praise Mr Wilson – and that says a lot.
In reality, Mr Wilson – born and raised in Texas, USA – launched out to study business and later architecture. But that did not click. What did click was the New York avant-garde dance of the mid-1960ies, and the names like Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham etc whose footsteps Mr Wilson started to follow. Soon tired of the minimalism then prevalent in the world of dance, he took to his own vision. Mr Wilson’s early works – performances like «Deafman Glance», «Life and Times of Joseph Stalin», and «KA MOUNTain and GUARDenia Terrace» were characterised by their dimensions and no use of words. Later, words did enter the silence, but they were to the point and select. Regarding said dimensions... the one mentioned last lasted for seven days in a row, in Iranian highlands.
More fame and attention came in cooperation with then unknown composer Philip Glass and «Einstein on the Beach» (1976), adding a dimension to opera.
By now, all the main theatres of the world have had their taste of Mr Wilson’s vision – which is characterised by formalism. Namely, Mr Wilson has admitted to hatred of realism. His theatre is pure art, subject to its own reality alone. «I like formalism as it creates more space, distance between things,» he has stated. Now labelled avant-garde maestro, he does not really like the avant-garde link.
Renaissance-Man is a worn-out expression, but that’s what Mr Wilson is –like it or hate it. From La Biennale di Venezia in 1993, he carried home a Golden Lion for installation. The man is also considered an expert in sculpture; video, light and installation art; and as designer of furniture, a choreograph, and playwright.