Commentary on Robert Wilson Talk and his Turandot Sept. 2019

By Frances Henry, Chair.  Photo courtesy of Joseph So.

Our usual custom at the TWS is to review the new program of the COC as it is announced in late spring of every year. As a co-production with Madrid and two other companies of Puccini’s Turandot was announced to herald the Fall 2019 season, our executive immediately noticed that famed theatre opera director Robert Wilson was to direct. Of special note, Mr. Wilson has directed Lohengrin, Parsifal and the Ring. As is our custom we decided to invite him to attend a meeting of the TWS. Accordingly I researched his bio on the Internet, found his website and the name of his manager. I sent a letter of invitation in July not expecting much return but to my surprise I heard from his manager quite quickly. He noted that Mr. Wilson would only be in Toronto for one week from Sept 16 and leaving the morning after the premiere on Sept. 28 and given his tight schedule there might not be time for a meeting. About a month later, I received another letter saying that Mr. Wilson responded that he would be delighted to join you one night – if his schedule allows. Although a meeting was not definite we were delighted that he would be interested in meeting with us. I received a note much later on Sept. 9 asking if the date of Sept. 17 was still on! This was my first inkling of a date and only 10 days before the opening. A mad rush then occurred, making sure the venue was available, getting out information so that there would be a good attendance for such an eminent guest, etc. but we managed and had one of the best meetings we ever had at TWS. In my view it was actually the very best I’ve ever experienced in all these years at the TWS.

He spoke about his childhood growing up in Waco Texas, his non-theatrical family background and his early years in N.Y. watching Balanchine’s ballets. He also stressed his relationship with two young African American boys one of whom was a deaf mute whom he later adopted. It was through talking to this boy and watching him deal with his environment without hearing or sound that taught him about the importance of physical movement communication. He studied architecture to please his father who was not keen to have his son become an artist. But the structure involved in designing buildings led him to the importance of standing, stillness, movement, light and colour in design. He said he was also influenced by the flow of Japanese Noh theatre and he has had a long collaborative relationship with a Japanese director. To explain structure and other elements Mr. Wilson (who likes to be called ‘Bob’) jumped up and began sketching in black and red on a white board how he constructed a production of Lohengrin he created some years ago. He chose that production especially for us as Wagnerians rather than the Turandot that had brought him here. He also does the lighting and design of his productions. His ability to clearly explain his unique method of theatre and operatic directions was very impressive and critical to understanding his work.   While his work has been called ‘minimalist, avant-garde, progressive, etc., few reviewers seem able to look beyond these labels in describing this innovative method.   Our large and appreciative audience paid rapt attention. Like me, many learned a great deal about direction from this marvellously innovative and creative man of theatre. Later when I had the very great pleasure of talking to him privately he said that he was impressed by the knowledge of our audience and the intensity with which they listened to him. He also said several times that he very much enjoyed the meeting with us.

Talk about Mr. Wilson’s appearance at the TWS spread through the operatic grapevine and I heard many appreciative comments from people who had not been there but ‘heard all about it’.