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
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
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
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.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform