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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition