Shortly before a 30-minute run-through of Bizet's Carmen in one of the plein air performing tents at the Water Mill Center on the south shore of Long Island, Robert Wilson turned to a group of monied supporters and visiting journalists from Germany, Canada and Spain. The director and installation artist said, "Sometimes I say, 'What shouldn't I do rather than what should I do.'" With perfect timing Wilson added, "I always thought Carmen was something not to do."
Never having pictured himself mounting this 19th-century French classic, the 60-year-old native of Waco, Tx., now finds himself scheduled to do it in October 2004 -- and in Seville, to boot. Given the cheers and applause that greeted his rehearsal of the piece last Saturday on Aug. 10, you might want to circle the date on your calendars when you get them in 16 months.
By then, the Water Mill Center should be open year round, in part thanks to a generous gift from opera lover Albert Vilar. During the past several months, while theater, music and art projects were being developed under a huge outdoor tent by a grass square with a giant stone urn in its center, workmen were hard at work winterizing a former factory erected in 1926. In the old days, as many as 250 employees, mostly scientists, once conducted telecommunications research. The fax machine was invented there in 1946.
On Aug. 11, after a month of frenetic activity, 45 young performers and artists from 30 different countries bade farewell to Wilson and his 55-odd staff members. Two thirds of them had been invited and the other third had applied to help Wilson realize plans for more than 17 projects. This included workshops for Leonce and Lena, the play by Buchner which will be performed at the Berliner Ensemble next May; a remounting of Einstein on the Beach targeted for Autumn 2004 in Berkeley, Ca.; a rock-gospel musical based on Flaubert's The Temptations of St. Anthony slated for the Ruhr Festival in Germany next June; and Manzanar, a music-theater piece dealing with the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, which was commissioned by the governor of California for a premiere in Los Angeles in 2004. Other workshops focused on a design for a throne cum sculpture for a square in Zagreb, and a house in Cologne where, this autumn, rooms will be transformed into installations combining art and music.
At the Water Mill Center there is never a dull moment, even when you plant trees or wash dishes.
Friday, Aug. 9, was fairly typical. Strains of Carmen could be heard across the six-acre site while Wilson worked in the office with his assistant. Now with grey hair and a bit of a paunch, he was dressed in a blue, long-sleeved tee shirt, black jeans, black socks and brown suede shoes. Rehearsals were called for noon. At 12:15 the Fed Ex truck arrived; the UPS man came later that afternoon. Two little boys played in the sprinkler watering the grass alongside the performance area; one only spoke German and the other Greek.
The journalists on hand didn't seem out of place, because everyone constantly makes notes or takes photographs. If you're not dressed in grey or black for a turn in the opera, you sit on various chairs that belong to Wilson's collection of masterpieces as well as utilitarian pieces of furniture from around the globe. Wherever you look, there are statues or decorative objects in wood or stone.
By 12:45, with a tape playing music from Carmen, Wilson began to block out how his performers should move. Two days later he would say, "I start with movement. What we see can help us hear. I'm trying to create a space where you can hear." With a bit of understatement, he also said, "Often opera is too busy."
By the time the lunch bell sounded, Wilson had paced his band of adventurers from Cuba, Columbia, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Denmark, Argentina and points elsewhere up to the moment when Carmen first appears on the busy plaza. He had talked about what he had learned from a photograph of John Giuelgud as Hamlet and illustrated another point with an anecdote about Stella Adler. And he told everyone to "Keep it light. Don't be so serious." Because he knows it's hard to do this he explained, "When you put something black on white, it's blacker. It's the same thing with tragedy."
Lunch, cooked by an in-house chef from Lafayette, La., consisted of veal, vegetables, pasta salad and green salad, served buffet style, with plates that are deep and well designed. Flowers were on every one of the long tables. When, on Saturday, Wilson didn't like how they looked, he went into the garden to pick some for new arrangements.
By 3:00, Wilson retreated to the office for some matters that needed his attention before he did an interview with a crew that's making a film about his participation in the Rolex mentoring program. At 4:10, he was looking at elegant photographs taken by Laurie Lambrecht of various activities at the Water Mill Center this past summer. Ten minutes later, Wilson once again supervised the staging of Carmen. Next up? Walking foreign journalists around the property while outlining plans for becoming a year-round operation, the few million that needs to be raised to make this viable, and describing the where and when of the making of the various objects on view. One particularly ravishing group of stones was unearthed in Indonesia and date from the same period as Stonehenge.
By 5:00, the cast of characters had changed. Andrey Bartenev, the Moscow-based Russian performance artist, and composer Patrick Grant, who has just returned from a stint at the Louvre in Paris, were among the fresh recruits. With others, they discussed the plans for the Cologne installation. For the moment, they were particularly interested in learning more about Malevich's 1913 opera, Victory in the Sun.
At 6:00, another group formed to drive to a nearby Polo field to stake out the exact dimensions of a manmade lake in Japan where an international exposition will be held in a few years. Wilson has been invited to propose a 30-minute program that can be held every night for three months. Cars were parked in far corners so that he could visualize how immense the area under consideration is. Surprised by the scale of this operation, Wilson used a cell phone to summon others to the field quickly. When they arrived, he was already suggesting possibilities for various five-minute segments. And he continued to do this as a sun set to rival the most majestic scene ever painted by Frederic Church unfolded. Wilson, of course, noticed this splendor. Though everyone else was petering out and his back hurt, Wilson returned to his office, which seems to operate 24/7. Wilson says he stops for the day when it's dark outside.
On Saturday, Robert Wilson was fresh as a daisy. In the morning, he helped plant new trees. Then there were phone calls to return, fax messages to write. He listened to someone suggesting institutions that might want to borrow his extraordinary installation, 14 Stations, which soon ends its run at Mass MOCA.
Then, it was time for another round of rehearsals for Carmen. This day, he showed how Carmen should move during her first aria. One and all applauded his performance. After a lunch of grilled steak, pasta salad, vegetables and salad for staff, performers and visitors, Wilson watched a video made during the recent Red Night benefit, an evening which is generally described by the New York Times as one of the best parties of the year. This one was sponsored by Louis Vuitton -- this Christmas, Wilson is designing the windows of all 400 Vuitton shops around the world.
Trees still needed planting. And by late afternoon, various aspects of the Cologne house installation were discussed by almost a dozen people. The exact floorplan had been laid out on the ground; even the doorways were indicated. Robert Wilson doesn't leave anything to chance. For someone who always sees the big picture, he also seems never to miss a beat or ignore a detail.
When does he sleep? Probably on airplanes to the next event.
PHYLLIS TUCHMAN publishes regularly in the Smithsonian, Town & Country and the Lancet.