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Top Five Most Controversial Robert Wilson Opera Productions

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Robert Wilson, the visionary opera director, helped realize the landmark production of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach (which returns to Brooklyn Academy of Music on Sept. 14). However, not all of his productions were as well received. Here are five of his projects that created drama both on stage and off.

1. Aida arouses outcries among the British masses

Wilson’s 2003 production of Aida at Covent Garden used the director’s trademark ultra-minimalist aesthetic. However, the deliberate movements and sleek sets didn’t please the London audience, which expected a little more pomp and Egyptian motifs from the performance. One reviewer went so far to compare the chorus to crowds at Nuremberg rallies. Perhaps most surprising of all was the shocked outrage in the press, since the same production had been mounted a year earlier in Brussels. Proving that any press is good press, tickets to the Verdi masterpiece practically sold out.

2. A Lohengrin stuck in time


Almost 25 years after Wilson’s triumph at the Metropolitan Opera with Einstein, the director returned to the stage to take on Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin. The arresting production, which centered on slow-motion movements by the singers, and large horizontal and vertical planes of lights, was coolly received by the press, and booed vociferously in the house.

3. The unfought battle

Wilson often calls his monumental dramatic staging projects operas, and such was the case with The CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down, a proposed 12-hour piece divided into five acts, 15 scenes and 13 interludes. The work was commissioned to be the centerpiece of the Olympic Arts Festival during the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. Lack of funding derailed the project, and Wilson lashed out against organizers. The piece has yet to be staged in full.

4. The writing’s not on the wall

When the Lyric Opera of Chicago scheduled Wilson’s version of Alceste, starring Jessye Norman, for its 1990 season the Chicago audience was prepared for the stark sets, costumes and unhurried opera singers. It was less accepting of Wilson’s decision to abolish supertitles. "I have never worked with them. In this production they could be especially confusing,” he told Martin Bernheimer in the L.A. Times. Operaphiles, many of whom had never seen the baroque work, disagreed and found this particular direction an aesthetic indulgence.

5. Staging a live artist’s final moments

When a performance art visionary asked Robert Wilson to dramatize her demise in the opera The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, the result, which premiered at the 2011 Manchester International Festival, was billed as one of the most important artistic collaborations of the 21st century. The production—starring Wilhem Dafoe and Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, as well as the titular performance artist—was hotly debated. One reviewer called it a travesty, while The Times of London called it “exquisite to see and hear.” Debates on the work’s merits crossed continents.

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