Robert Wilson speaks about the nature of his theatre

My theater is a formal theater.
For me, in theater all elements are equally important: words, music, movement, dance, costume, make-up, architecture, sculpture, design, light. All the arts come together in theater. You may call it “Gesamtkunstwerk” like Richard Wagner or “Epic Theater” like Bertolt Brecht. “Opera” comes from the Latin word for “work”: “opus,” all inclusive. 

My early plays were “silent operas” (as a French critic called them); like Deafman Glance, a seven hour play with no words, The Life and Times of Josef Stalin, a twelve hour play, or KA MOUNTain and GUARDenia Terrace, a play created in Iran with a duration of seven days. “The most beautiful music can be found in silence”, as John Cage has taught us. The silence has a rhythm. It is music. You can add layers: an instrument, an orchestra, a singer, the audience. It is a time/space construction.

Many directors tend to study only the written word, starting there when trying to stage a play or an opera. In Western culture, as André Malraux has said, theater “has been bound by literature.” The Balinese theater, the Indian Katakali, the Peking Opera and the Nōh Theater of Japan are all formal. How to stand on a stage, sit as a musician, or to move a hand or an eye is studied as a formal language. Maybe the most difficult thing is how to stand on a stage. Most Western actors and singers have never thought about or studied standing. One must know the unique feeling of the weight of one’s own body in order to stand. It is the source of everything. 

To me, all theater is dance. Like Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin: timing is everything. It is a vocabulary rehearsed over and over again. Then it becomes mechanical and gives you freedom. In opera, my main objective is to make it easier to LISTEN to the music by what you see; otherwise it is better to listen to a CD or close your eyes when sitting in the opera house. 

I am not interested in psychology on stage. I have no “message.” It is not about “interpretation.” It is not my responsibility or the actors’ to impose an “idea” on the spectator. I have never told an actor or singer what he should think or feel. I give a strict frame but it is up to the individual to fill it in. The experience of the performers and the public is what is most important. To experience something is a way of thinking; Zen philosophy tells us this. I try to stay open. 

I dislike the idea of “updating” an opera: playing La traviata in a supermarket to make it look more “modern” does not make sense to me. I respect what the composer writes in his score. When Verdi created La traviata it was a very daring subject. Marie Duplessis, Alexandre Dumas’s mistress whose fate had inspired his autobiographical novel The Lady of the Camellias had just died in Paris at the age of 23. Everyone knew that the opera was about a contemporary French courtesan despite the fact that the censor had urged Verdi and his librettist to situate the action in the 17th century. Verdi’s Violetta is not an ordinary woman. The music makes her appear as a noble figure. Her sacrifice of love transforms her into a tragic heroine. If something is tragic and dark like Violetta’s death at the end of La traviata you have to stage it with light, even with a smile. We must laugh a little bit for it to be a real tragedy. Violetta dies with the word “joy” on her lips. A little bit of lightmakes the dark darker.

In 2013 when Gerard Mortier asked me to direct La traviata in Madrid we agreed that this production should be as far as possible from the sentimental way in which it is often seen. Gerard was not much a fan of Puccini, but he liked very much the way I staged Madama Butterfly: minimally, abstractly, and coldly, but with emotional depth.

The music of La traviata can be so sweet, and if the direction is also visually sweet, there is no deep sense of emotion. Staging it coldly and formally makes the action on stage seem distant and inevitable. Every opposite has its opposite: light and dark, cold and hot, steel and velvet … This balance of opposites creates space for the audience to reflect on what they experience.

After Gerard Mortier passed away, the Teatro Real Madrid decided to cancel the project of this new La traviata. It is great that Landestheater Linz and the partners from Perm and Luxembourg, together with Unlimited Performing Arts, stepped in. I want to dedicate this production to the memory of the late Gerard Mortier, a true visionary of musical theater. He is greatly missed.

Robert Wilson, stage director and set designer
Quotations notated by Konrad Kuhn (Linz, September 2015)