One thing is certain: Royce Hall, grand architectural landmark on the UCLA campus, 1,829-seat concert hall of matchless comfort, beauty and sonic amenities, reopens next Wednesday. After four years and three months of repair, reconstruction and retrofitting in the wake of the Northridge earthquake – four years in which ticket holders for the lavish offerings of the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts have endured the flaking plaster and flaky acoustics of alternative theaters rushed into service – the Westside’s premiere performance space is ready once again for an audience.
What that audience is in for, on opening night and for the ensuing 10 nights and two matinees, is not so easily explained. If you’re hoping for a proud demonstration of the hall’s legendary acoustics, be warned that everything this time will emerge from loudspeakers, probably amplified up the bazooty. The work itself, Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’ Monsters of Grace 1.0, has a text consisting of steamy love-lyrics by a 13th-century mystic, and action in the form of 3-D film to be projected onto a screen filling the 40-foot proscenium. Up front, the information is enticing: This is the first creative collaboration in 14 years of two of the most controversial, influential and – here and there, anyway – highly regarded creative spirits these days. When the Texas-born director-playwright-designer-poet-etc. Wilson first merged his visions with those of the Baltimore-born New York taxi-driver-cum-minimalist-composer Glass, the result was an incredible five-hour-plus stage work called Einstein on the Beach, which left audiences both baffled and enthralled. Everyone agreed, at least, that the marriage of music and theater had produced an offspring of spectacular importance, perhaps even greatness. But nobody was exactly sure of how to put it into words.
“Phil and I have been working on Monsters for something like three years,” Wilson says in a wee-hours phone call from his hotel in Paris, where he has just flown in from Bogotá and is about to fly off to Milan. “No, it hasn’t been like the way we worked on Einstein, together for hours and days – we’re both too busy. But now we know each other, and can do our collaboration in a kind of shorthand. It’s important that we share this sense of aim. We think alike.”
In 1976, when Einstein achieved two performances at Manhattan’s august Metropolitan Opera House (underwritten not by the opera company, however, but by Wilson and Glass themselves), Glass had already produced a repertory of seductive, hypnotic music relying chiefly on small melodic particles obsessively repeated. Wilson had produced one play lasting 12 hours, The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, and another called I Was Sitting on My Patio This Guy Appeared I Thought I Was Hallucinating that didn’t last much longer than its title. Like Mozart and Da Ponte, like Gilbert and Sullivan – but vastly different from all four – Wilson and Glass found a way to clone each other’s cultural thumbprint. Einstein, in case you’re wondering, did deal in an indirect sort of way with the great scientist, as lover, mathematician, violinist and designer of spaceships; it also dealt – in an “aria” repeated verbatim 43 times – with bathing caps, Fourth of July plumes and the beach.
Glass had to drive his cab for another year or two to pay off the Einstein bills, but by 1980 he and Wilson were permanently entrenched in the ranks of those progress-minded souls who cannot bear to leave well enough alone. In 1984 the producers of Los Angeles’ Olympic Arts Festival, an impressive gathering of performing forces from around the world, had conceived a vast original theatrical entertainment as the festive centerpiece: a 15-hour dramatic panorama, the CIVIL warS, with a text by Wilson and music by half a dozen composers of varying backgrounds, its separate parts staged in various theaters overseas and the whole shebang then assembled in Los Angeles. Glass composed the last of the five acts, which had its premiere at the Rome Opera in March 1984. By the time that curtain had gone up, word had already arrived from Los Angeles that the CIVIL warS would not take place. Wilson’s subtitle for the work, “a tree is best measured when it is down,” took on a prophetic ring.
Fourteen years later, Wilson, 56, is now hailed as the supreme theatrical innovator of the time, with a repertory that includes staging of traditional operas (Gluck’s Alceste in Stuttgart), original musical theater (Black Rider, to music by Tom Waits) and a spectacular legacy of plays. Glass, just past 60, is . . . well, Glass: of opera, movie (Kundun, etc.) and Violin Concerto fame. Technology marches on; no longer a couple of flesh-and-blood wooers in a railway carriage lurching through the night (as in Einstein), no longer an Abe Lincoln on 20-foot stilts or a singer in a birdcage high above the stage (as in the CIVIL warS), the major action in Monsters of Grace 1.0 has been enshrined onto 3-D film, with other singers and the Philip Glass instrumental ensemble functioning on the sidelines. Objects – a shoe, a boy on a bicycle, a house – tumble through seemingly limitless space; a starscape stretches out toward infinity. The audience catches the 3-D effects by watching through polarized glasses, designed by L.A. Eyeworks and handed out free at the door. Anyone else remember House of Wax? 1953, wasn’t it?
The title and plot, if such there be, stem from the poetry of the Persian mystic Jelaluddin Rumi, greatest of the Sufi poets, ——–
AUTHOR of ecstatic love-poetry – and founder of the order of dervishes, religious celebrants whose whirling movements while praying represent the movement of the human soul around God. I wonder at the “1.0,” which looks suspiciously like the indication on a preliminary version of computer software. The press handout supports my suspicion by referring to it as a “beta” version; will it, perhaps, self-destruct in the middle of the hero’s big aria? Producer Jed Wheeler, on the phone from New York, explains: “It simply means that there are still more questions than answers.” Jeff Kleiser, who with Diana Wal czak created the 3-D film, converting Wilson’s storyboards into computerized images, explains further: “The entire performance runs about 70 minutes, and we have completed about half that amount on film. The rest will be done at Royce by live actors and singers. As we complete more film before future engagements, we’ll keep plugging in the segments until, eventually, the entire work is on film.” Fine and dandy; Monsters of Grace, in whatever version, could be the world’s first self-constructing opera.
Memories, memories . . . At rehearsals of the CIVIL warS at the Rome Opera in 1984, I watched in amazement as Wilson took as much as two hours to adjust the angle of lighting to the angle of a singer’s hand. I sat with Glass and Wilson at a hotel bar in Rome, demolishing the brandy supply and sweating out the uprisings as the various operatic unions took turns going on strike to protest the repetitions in Glass’ music, which forced them to count. We were in the bar when the news came of the Los Angeles cancellation. Whatever else the realities and unrealities of Monsters of Grace, Los Angeles, at least, is getting its long overdue first shot of Wilson-Glass.
But what, in fact, are we getting? On the phone from Paris, Wilson points out the difference between two hours’ work on a single image on a live stage and manipulating the computer-created visuals. “I turned over the storyboards to Jeff and Diana last October. Now it’s April, we go on in two weeks, and I haven’t even seen the final results. Maybe I’ll come out to see them in Los Angeles. All that exacting work I’ve always done on the stage, that’s out of my hands now. Maybe I’ll love it, maybe not.”