PARIS — The American director Robert Wilson has one of the most recognizable styles in modern theater. Honed over decades, his starkly drawn tableaus of abstract lines and shapes, lit with minute precision, have adorned Shakespeare plays and Philip Glass operas alike.
And Wilson, who turned 80 in October, isn’t about to depart from that formula.
Last week, as the Paris Opera put the finishing touches on his production of Puccini’s “Turandot,” which premiered at the Teatro Real in 2018 and opens here with a preview for young audiences on Wednesday, Wilson zeroed in on the minuscule imperfections, nudging performers centimeters closer to their marks. A misshapen reflection of the moon on the stage brought rehearsal to a stop. As the lighting team scrambled to fix the spot, he turned to them and asked, “Where is it?”
“Some of his shows have 2,000 light cues, so you have to be very organized,” John Torres, a lighting designer who has worked with Wilson for a decade, said during a rehearsal break. “It’s a little bit of a puzzle.”
Wilson has 184 stage productions to his name, along with many revivals, and neither age nor the pandemic have slowed him down. “I forget that I’m 80, because I’m fortunate that I’m still working,” he said in an interview at the Opéra Bastille. “I’m booked for the next two years, solid.”
In Paris alone this fall, Wilson has brought four shows to stages around town. In addition to “Turandot,” his “Jungle Book,” a 2019 musical inspired by Rudyard Kipling, brought stilted animals to the Théâtre du Châtelet. He also reunited with the choreographer Lucinda Childs, with whom he staged Glass’s landmark “Einstein on the Beach” in 1976: As part of the Paris Autumn Festival, they presented a new creation (“Bach 6 Solo”) and a revival (“I Was Sitting on My Patio This Guy Appeared I Thought I Was Hallucinating,” from 1977).
While Europe has long celebrated Wilson as one of the most important directors of the past century, he has been less of a prophet at home. His boundary-pushing artistic statements — “Deafman Glance,” a hit in France in 1971, was seven hours long and wordless — never secured him regular commissions in the United States, even though Wilson has had what he calls his own arts “laboratory,” the Watermill Center on Long Island, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year.
Speaking about his busy Paris season, Wilson said that he probably won’t have as many productions in New York “until I die.” His longstanding disdain for naturalism hasn’t helped. “What are they thinking about, in these dramas in New York?” he asked. “They have all this psychology. Does it have to be that complicated?”
In lieu of psychology, Wilson’s work is driven by image and sound, and was shaped by early encounters with forward-looking choreographers. After a difficult youth as the gay son of a conservative family in Texas, where he initially studied business administration, Wilson moved to New York in 1963 and discovered the work of Merce Cunningham and, especially, George Balanchine, whose large repertoire of plotless ballets have Wilson’s favor. (Nonetheless, he admitted to liking Balanchine’s ever-popular “Nutcracker” staging, a fixture of the holiday season at New York City Ballet and elsewhere.)
“That changed my life,” Wilson said. “I thought that if theater could be like that, if opera could be like that, then I was interested.”
Wilson approaches theater and opera in the same way. Even when he works with straightforward plays, as in his production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” that opened in October in Sofia, Bulgaria, sentences tend to be distorted in artificial ways.
“His take on text is almost strictly musical,” said the French performer Yuming Hey, who plays Mowgli in “Jungle Book.” In an email, Childs, the choreographer, said that “rhythm and timing are his foremost concerns” and that Wilson’s vision “hasn’t changed” much in the five decades she has known him.
In fact, Wilson’s aesthetic has been singularly consistent, down to details like the white makeup performers wear and their stylized hand gestures. To his critics, this sameness glosses over the differences between the works he stages. To Wilson, it’s just a way of acknowledging that a stage is “unlike any other space in the world,” as he told the cast of “Turandot,” and to craft visuals that help the audience “hear better than with their eyes closed.”
“To see someone try to act natural onstage seems so artificial,” he said in an interview later. “If you accept it as being something artificial, in the long run, it seems more natural, for me.”
Hey said that during preparations for “Jungle Book,” the first step for him was to learn what he called “Wilson’s grammar,” which is often taught by assistant stagers. In auditions, he was given exercises with directions such as “stand still, like a sun, and shine while keeping the position and staying focused.”
Somewhat paradoxically, Wilson’s work has consistently been described as avant-garde as other aesthetic trends have come and gone. “It’s a very interesting word, because for me, avant-garde means to rediscover the classics,” Wilson said. “All my works are based on classical patterns.”
Work, for Wilson and his team, starts at 7 a.m. and often extends late into the evening. “It’s just what he does, so he kind of expects everyone to do the same,” said Julian Mommert, who was Wilson’s assistant for two years and now works as international relations and tour manager for the choreographer Dimitris Papaioannou. Mommert remembered Wilson as “very open and funny and warm,” but ultimately left in 2014, because of exhaustion.
Wilson’s only break each year is a one-week trip to Bali around Christmas. “I go to a very modest hotel,” he said. “I’ve been going there for 30-something years, and no one knows who I am. I like the people; I like the food.”
Wilson didn’t even take a substantial break during the pandemic. In 2020, he spent several months in Berlin, at the Akademie der Künste. “I had a beautiful studio and I made lots of drawings,” he said. How did he fare away from the stage? “Of course one is upset, but working is like breathing. I just kept on breathing.”
Still, the forced pause had “a tremendous impact” on his production machine, Wilson said. Performances were canceled, along with the Watermill Center’s 2020 summer festival and gala — which, he said, typically brings in “as much as 2 or 2.4 million” dollars. For summer 2021, because of travel restrictions, he did not invite his usual international roster of guests and residents but more local artists instead, for a weeklong festival organization with the artist Carrie Mae Weems.
“Work for me is not really work; it’s a way of living,” Wilson said. “I’m still the same person I was when I first started working in the theater.”
And at the Paris Opera, behind his single-minded focus and solemn demeanor, a hint of playfulness occasionally resurfaced with the cast of “Turandot.” Wilson described the opera as “a fairy tale, another world,” in which the Chinese princess Turandot, who initially refuses to marry, “is having fun being evil.” His minimalist aesthetic steers clear of orientalism, although the comic trio of ministers, renamed Jim, Bob and Bill when the production was performed by the Canadian Opera Company in 2019, are here restored as Ping, Pang and Pong.
“The reason we make theater is to have fun,” Wilson told the singers. “You can’t take this work too seriously.”