Inevitably, but at glacial pace, the art of Robert Wilson moves westward. In European theater, his work has exerted a volcanic influence over the past three decades. In New York, or at least in Brooklyn, he has maintained a stronghold for even longer. In Los Angeles, however, he has been on our conscience, but not on our stages, since the city’s failure – of funding, but also of vision – to import the gargantuan, multinational, multimedia CIVIL warS that he concocted for the 1984 Olympics. Attempts to restore to circulation his Einstein on the Beach, his signature work and in some ways his greatest, have also sputtered; about the 1998 Monsters of Grace, a later collaboration with Philip Glass, his one original work seen here so far, the less said the better.
But last season’s Madama Butterfly at the L.A. Opera, not a new production but a carefully prepared revival, was pure Wilson: the exquisitely intricate sense of stage movement, the lighting that swept the eye toward magical far horizons, and, most remarkable, the way the characters onstage seemed to absorb light and color until it became their defining dimension. And if you make the pilgrimage to San Francisco’s Geary Theater – where Wilson’s The Black Rider, the first completely original work of his to play these shores, will be on the boards for another week – the first thing you will notice is that same intensity, as though the confraternity of dyestuff and paint and lighting has saturated everything and made the essence of color into a dimension of itself.
The fable of The Black Rider partakes deeply of the essence of theater: good versus evil, the power of make-believe to enlist the participation of all the senses. This particular permutation derives from a German folktale, but the aura is universal. Wilhelm, the simple-minded schnook, needs to win the huntsman’s contest to earn the hand of Katie; on his own, however, he can’t even hit a barn door. Enter the Devil, who offers a handful of Magic Bullets, but doesn’t let on that the last bullet belongs to him. Needless to say, that last bullet becomes the bearer of mischief; Katie falls, and Wilhelm ends up in the loony bin. Carl Maria von Weber took the same story into Der Freischütz but gave it a happy ending. The only treatment of the tale that comes close to the Wilson version is Achim Freyer’s staging of the Weber with the Stuttgart Opera, which, to our great good fortune, has just turned up on DVD.
Wilson’s Black Rider dates from 1990, first performed in German at Hamburg’s Thalia Theater; when it came to the Brooklyn Academy for a 10-day run in 1993, it was already a legend. With an insight born of genius, Wilson gathered to the making of the work the high/low art of two of his time’s most eloquent spokesmen for inner disturbance, the drug-sozzled writer William S. Burroughs and the abrasive balladeer Tom Waits. As with Einstein, the resultant work is so seamless that it seems to stem from a single impulse, a single genius. The English version had its premiere at London’s Barbican last May, and was brought to San Francisco by that city’s admirable American Conservatory Theater. It travels now to lucky Sydney.
The songs, a marvelous stew of Brecht, Weill and Waits himself, cackled forth by an enchanted cast led by Marianne Faithfull (as, of course, the Devil) and the rubber-legged dancer Matt McGrath (recently of Hedwig and the Angry Inch), seem to mirror the stage pictures, with their grotesque props like children’s drawings gone askew. Now and then there’s an evocation: a moment from some long-forgotten silent film, some children’s cutouts you remember from kindergarten. Memories go fleeting by, and you don’t quite grasp them, because some of the theater is happening within your own head. In the pit, a band calling itself the Magic Bullets grinds out new music full of Kurt Weill’s sourness; a virtuoso on the musical saw sets your teeth on edge.
The vital element of Wilson’s art is his amazing power of concentration, of drawing a dramatic detail out of a situation and bearing down on its implications at whatever length. That, I think, is the crux of Einstein, and it works here as well. Not for him the diversionary tactics of the trash mongers I wrote about not long ago, whose notion of modern theater is to stage Wagner’s Ring in an office-building basement. He starts with reality, and goes on from there. Given the breadth of his imagination, he can go far.
Rounding out my Bay Area weekend, there was Kent Nagano’s Berkeley Symphony at UC’s Zellerbach Hall, with the American premiere of the Violin Concerto by Unsuk Chin, a work preceded by considerable fame – including the winning of the $200,000 Grawemeyer Award at the University of Louisville, no small potatoes – and worth every blast. Born in Korea but mostly educated in Berlin, Chin has been moving forward at a fair clip, with Nagano one of her strong proponents. Her tricky chamber piece Acrostic Wordplay turned up on a Green Umbrella program a couple of years ago; her opera on Alice in Wonderland is slated for the L.A. Opera’s 2005-06 season (conducted by guess who), and there was a short excerpt from that work, along with a big electronic work, at last summer’s Ojai Festival.
The Violin Concerto, which Vivianne Hagner performed at Berkeley, is stronger than anything of Chin’s I have yet heard, a phenomenally tense, marvelously scored piece lasting about half an hour. Much is made of the violin intoning a rhapsodic melodic line over a percussive throbbing. Much, too, is made of killer virtuoso stuff. Chin writes with what seems to me a natural gift for the concerto, for making solo instruments say something along with an orchestra. She has composed concertos for piano and for percussion, which I am eager to hear. I am eager, in fact, to hear anything that proclaims the arrival of an important composer with serious, original ways of finding new things to say within the old shapes. These days, that’s rare.