Robert Wilson: 'Opera's not just music - it's architecture and light!'

At 61, renowned director Robert Wilson continues to stretch artistic boundaries. Louise Gray meets him on the eve of his Covent Garden debut

Backstage, the stage hands of the Royal Opera are discussing Robert Wilson's forthcoming production of Verdi's Aida. The Egyptian opera, a tragedy that pits the grandest passion against the gravest politics, is a staple in the repertoire of the world's opera houses, and the death scene, in which Aida and her lover, Radamès, are sealed in a cave, is one of Verdi's greatest set pieces.

"It is," says one stage hand, "a very conceptual cave." "Oh, a very mental cave," joins the other.

"It's another smash hit for Drury Lane!" And, of course, it is. Wilson is a draw. His Aida, which was unveiled last year in Brussels at La Monnaie, sold out months in advance of its Covent Garden opening. His staging for the Royal Academy's current Armani show is causing as much interest as the clothes themselves. Last month, his Temptation of St Anthony at Sadler's Wells broke, said critics, yet another mould. With such a Stakhanovite work rate, it's astonishing that Wilson, now 61 and with a greater wealth of productions (and honours) under his belt than any other working director, is only now making his debut at Covent Garden.

It may be a little tiring to repeat the usual superlatives applied to Wilson - the most avant-garde, the most influential, the greatest director - although for once they're probably true. But to the superlatives, one could also add that he is the most attentive. For an artist whose work is so much associated with light ("Without light, there's no space," he states), he's also big on noise. Simply, Wilson makes his listeners aware of how noisy the world is. "I start any work the same way," he says. "I start a rehearsal with silence. John Cage said there is no such thing as silence, there's always sound. So we listen. Theatre for me has to be about one thing first, or it gets too complicated.

"Listen," he commands, and we do. "I hear the traffic outside; I hear you sitting up; I hear the air conditioning; I hear my foot on the carpet. That sequence of sounds will never, ever, happen again. The only thing that's constant is change." It is this immense subtlety of movement - light, sound, intention - that informs all Wilson's work. There is nothing superfluous in his rigorously uncluttered staging, something that's necessary to allow a clear focus on complex activities. One of Wilson's most profound influences was the psychologist Daniel Stern. Stern filmed mothers and babies in natural situations; the baby would cry, its mother would comfort it. "But," Wilson says, "when the film was slowed down, and there were 24 frames per second, you'd see another story." He pulls the face of an enraged mother, a terrified baby. A single second could contain rage, love, terror. This most basic ambivalence continues to fascinate him. If Aida is about love, then it's also about hate. "They are part of one world. Heaven can't exist without hell. If we stay open to that, then we have a different experience." His theatre is formal, he stresses; it is not interpretative. "In formal theatre, there is room for reflection. You approach the work with a question: what am I saying? What am I doing? If you know what you're doing, don't do it." Be careful, he warns, about imposing any one meaning. Sometimes there are no meanings, which is not to say that an action is meaningless. "My responsibility is to ask what it is, not say what something is." It's vital, in Wilson's framing of the opera, that there is room for reflection. With its wider themes of war and imperial ambition, Aida has a grim political contemporaneity, and Wilson reflects this in his production.

"I try to present something that is full of time. Not timeless, but full of time. I never like a work where we try to update it, but it's still not interesting to see a work that is dated. If one is successful, then a work can be full of time. And time is very complex."

That his style, or at least its surface elements, seems to be so well understood, delights the director. But critics carp that Wilson, originally trained in architecture and fine art, subjugates source material to his own design. It's all lights, two-dimensional movement, a controlled spectacle. "It's true!" he laughs. "They're right! But, I tell you: opera means works. It's plural, so it's everything. It's psychology; it's architecture, it's light. It's not just music - and that's what's exciting.

"I had dinner with Marlene Dietrich in the early 1970s," he remembers. "I went to pick her up and she had someone with her, a dreadful man. He was writing a book about her, and he said to her, you're so cold when you perform, and she said," - here Wilson concentrates his tone with a low menace - "'You didn't listen to the voice.' She said the difficulty was to place the voice with the face. She could be icy cold with those movements and the voice could be hot and sexy, and that was her power.

"So if you get this music fired up," Wilson concludes, "and the singers walk against it, and [don't] step on the beat of the music, like a high school marching band, that's what'll create the architecture, the tension between what I'm hearing and what I'm seeing. What I'm seeing can help me hear better."

'Aida': Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), 8, 11, 14, 17, 20, 22, 26 and 28 November

Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003