Top Five Most Controversial Robert Wilson Opera Productions

Getting to know a major director through his debated work

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

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.

Weigh in: What do you think of Robert Wilson's work? Leave your comments below.


More in:

Comments [8]

westriver from Beverly Hills

Although I have seen more than 20 Robert Wilson works around the world, the Met's production of Lohengrin was the greatest Opera production I had ever seen, wept at it, until I saw Einstein on the Beach in Totonto, Berkeley and Los Angeles in 2012-2013.

Feb. 09 2014 04:04 PM
germanus pause from Melbourne

I would add the Parsifal production in 1991 in Hamburg to the list. Minimalistic styling , unforgettable the transformation from a semi romantic German cultish opera into a haunting set of images invoking both ghosts of the past and optional Wilson to break the mould but remaining within the orbit of Wagner music.

Sep. 11 2013 10:41 PM
Peter O'Malley from Oakland, New Jersey

I haven't seen the "Lohengrin" in question, but it is in the nature of these regietheater productions to ignore the text and context of the piece being desecrated (hmm: is that a signifier of my view of this pretentious silliness?). Recent case in point: the "Traviata" of the clock, the red dress, and the silly onlooker who may or may not be Death. In the confrontation between Violetta and Germont, poor Natalie Dessay looked like she was only distractedly engaged in conversation while she was redecorating the room by removing all the colorful draperies to return to stark white. Then, the silliness of Germont knocking Alfredo out (perhaps not in the text,guys??), all of whcih was observed by the irrelevant onlooker upstage center. Why does this add anything to the telling of the story that exists in the words and music?

Sep. 17 2012 04:26 PM
Jamie from Brooklyn

Another thumbs up for his Met Lohengrin. I found the singers' movements, and the lighting and makeup, mesmerizing.

Sep. 13 2012 08:34 PM
Sandy from New Hampshire

Re: Wilson’s Lohengrin. Yes – the blood-red curtain – so excitingly dramatic! I found the beams of light and the singers’ slow-motion movements wondrously moving. Both came together and breathed with the music. At a meeting for Patrons with Joe Volpe afterwards, discussion of this production brought normally sedate Patrons to blows, literally. People either loved it or hated it. There was no middle ground. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Sep. 13 2012 04:58 PM
Alex from Milano

Robert Wilson is an egomaniac. Everything he does points to himself and his work. He completely ignores the composers and their intentions.

Sep. 12 2012 07:30 PM
Seth Davis from Westchester

To offer a different view, Wilson's Met Lohengrin was one of the greatest thrills in my almost 50 years of going to opera performances. (And I've got a LOT of years to go!) Some of those images are forever etched in my mind--particularly Ortrud closing the blood-red curtain at the end of Act 2. For me, the slowed down movements enhanced the poetry and mystery in the music. Yes, the prior production was gorgeous. But Wilson's was unforgettable.

I would also submit that the production got better as it got older, and as the cast grew into it.

Sep. 12 2012 05:38 PM
carolyn from NYC

Saw and wept at Lohengrin....the Wilson production was terrible for me, as I loved, LOVED the Met's medieval story-book production (can't remember who did it) That production was a tribute to Wagner's music, and faithful to the time while at the same time being creative in its conception and inspiring for the singers....Wilson's said nothing except.... "look at me and MY creation". It did nothing to enhance the music. Glad I have a video of my favorite earlier production.

Sep. 12 2012 03:01 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Follow WQXR 







About Top 5 @ 105

WQXR helps you make the most of the New York City’s classical music scene.

Our "Top 5 at 105 " features can't-miss experiences: the best concerts, books and films about music, places to eat before and after shows, and more.