A Minute With: Theater director Robert Wilson on 'Einstein on the Beach'

By Jordan Riefe

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When Robert Wilson was a struggling young experimental theater artist living in New York in 1973, he met a struggling young composer named Philip Glass after a performance of Wilson's 12-hour silent play, "The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin."

Wilson and Glass, who would both rise to the top of their fields, would collaborate on the 1976 opera "Einstein on the Beach," described as "epochal" by the New York Times for breaking with conventions. The opera is now on a rare North American and European tour.

A collection of images and symbols related to physicist Albert Einstein, the 4-1/2-hour opera is a non-narrative piece that includes a courtroom scene, a spaceship, a trip to the grocery store - and no intermission. A seashell is meant to hold the sound of the universe, while Einstein himself sits downstage sawing away on his favorite musical instrument, the violin.

Wilson, now 72 and a recipient of France's highest cultural award, spoke with Reuters during the opera's three-performance run last week at the Los Angeles Opera about his first meeting with Glass and how he brokered a deal to get "Einstein on the Beach" performed at New York's Metropolitan Opera.

Q: What do you recall about first meeting with Philip Glass?

A: I knew his music and I said, "How do you write music?" He said, "It's like this." And he made a little diagram and explained. Then he said, "How do you make a work?" We both thought in time-space construction and coded our thoughts in math so we could more quickly see what it was that we were doing. So we decided to work together. It was quite easy because we thought alike.

Q: At that time in the early 1970s, you were working in marginal theater with limited funds and miniscule audiences. Did you ever have doubts?

A: Of course you do, of course you do. I was very young. Actually the first year I was in New York, I met Martha Graham. She said, "Well, Mr. Wilson what do you want to do in life?" I was 21 years old and I said, "I have no idea." And she said, "If you work long enough and hard enough, you'll find something." And oddly enough, this very simple thing that she said so often has come back to me. Nine times out of 10 you say, "Oh my God, this will never work. What am I doing? And how do I do it?" I don't know, somehow you just keep working.

Q: What did the success of "Einstein" mean for your career?

A: Just before I made "Einstein on the Beach" I made a work called "A Letter for Queen Victoria." This was a play of nonsense. It had been written with an autistic boy. I wanted to put it right in the middle of Broadway, and no one wanted to produce it so I produced it myself, and it was a disaster. And then when I did "Einstein," I was thinking on a large scale. So I went to the National Endowment for the Arts and was told that sort of thing should be downtown (Manhattan) in a loft. I said, "No, I want to be at Lincoln Center. I want to be in the Metropolitan Opera House. I want to be right in the mainstream."

Q: Why produce experimental theater in establishment houses?

A: It's important that we have the traditional operas and the repertory, but we should also have something new. So the Met said, "No, no, no, it wouldn't be right for their audience." Then I found out they were going to be dark on a Sunday night. I said, "Can I rent the house?" And it took a lot of persuasion of the board, but finally they agreed that if I paid all the bills then I could have the house.

Q: What was your father's reaction after seeing you feted at the Met?

A: My father didn't know my work, he had come from Texas and after "Einstein" - five hours, standing ovation at the Metropolitan Opera - he said, "You must be making a lot of money." I said, "No dad, I'm not. I lost a quarter of a million dollars." He said, "I didn't know you were smart enough to be able to lose a quarter of a million dollars!"

(Editing by Eric Kelsey; and Jackie Frank)

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