When director Robert Wilson and composer Philip Glass got together at a small restaurant on New York's Sullivan Street in 1976 to sketch out a five-hour-long, plotless opera, they knew they were doing something different. But it's doubtful they realized just how radical the result would be. With Einstein on the Beach, Glass and Wilson not only mined the collective consciousness of the post-atomic age but created a whole new kind of musical theater. The allusive, dreamlike score remains atypical of Glass's oeuvre, but the production established Wilson's signature stripped-down style and his reputation as the most innovative director of his generation. Since then, this master of lighting, set design, and stage direction has collaborated with soprano Jessye Norman, writer Susan Sontag, and such genre-bending cult favorites as Tom Waits and Laurie Anderson. A painter and sculptor by training, he has also mounted numerous shows of his artworks, which, like his productions, compress divergent styles and media into a mesmerizing whole.
Born in Waco, Texas, Wilson nominally makes his home in New York, but spends less than two weeks a year in his TriBeCa apartment. The rest of the time he's shuttling from one engagement to the next: rehearsals in Paris, ritual celebrations in Sumatra, exhibitions in Texas. Wilson rarely goes anywhere without an assistant, which is a good thing. Whereas his working style is meticulous and exacting, his mode of travel is surprisingly idiosyncratic. Tickets, timetables, limits on baggage—all evaporate in the face of his enthusiasms. Though Wilson is known for his minimal sets, he doesn't believe in traveling light. If he buys a chair in Hong Kong, he'll carry it with him—to Singapore, Paris, Berlin. (His chair collection, which, he says, "numbers hundreds and hundreds," was recently shown in Paris at Galeries Lafayette.) A devoted shopper, he admits to having "an apartment full of junk from all over the world." Travel + Leisure caught up with him at his studio in Watermill, New York, where he does much of the planning for his productions. There he talked about life on the road and the places that have influenced his work.
Bring It On I have special techniques for getting all of my carry-ons onto the flight with me. You must carefully select the agent who checks you in—choose one you can talk to. I keep the carry-ons to the side so they aren't visible. After checking my many bags, I wheel an enormous 150-pound office bag to the gate, where they tell me I can't take it on. (Of course, I already know this!) They tag it and check it there, so I never pay. It works every time—except on Czech Airlines, which charged me 470 euros and then lost my bag. I'm always traveling with a pot or a chair, and I'm always told, "Sorry, sorry, sorry, you can't take that on," but I plead my case. "I've carried this pot from Hong Kong to Rome, from Rome to Paris, from Paris to Berlin," I tell them. "It is five thousand years old. There's no way I can check it, no way I can leave it behind." I once told a pilot of my difficulty, and he let me put my pot behind his seat in the cockpit.
Flying Lessons I never identify myself on a plane. If someone asks, "What do you do?" I say, "Civil lawyer." That usually shuts them up. I drink lots of water; I nap for two hours; I work for a while, then I sleep for two more hours. I don't use drugs. I carry a box of No. 2 pencils, and I make drawings and write notes. I like a window seat so I can look out and see all that space. My favorite airline is Singapore. I love everything about it—food, beds, service.
Going Native I was just in Sumatra, camping out in villages with a friend, Jean-Paul Barbier, who owns the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva—it specializes in monumental stone sculptures. Barbier wrote a book, Messages in Stone: Statues and Sculptures from Tribal Indonesia, and we traveled together to look at sculptures, especially the massive stone "riders on horseback." We went all around Lake Toba [in northern Sumatra] and also to Sulawesi to see the transvestite Bugis priests, who go into deep trances. The king of Sulawesi himself was present at a very private ceremony during which the priests stuck knives into their throats and stomachs, but seemed to feel no pain—and there was no blood. It was unbelievable. There was violent beating of drums: powerful, aggressive, and very physical music. I'm developing a project that will be produced in Indonesia in 2004, so I was interested in the textiles and costumes as well as the dancers, musicians, and ceremonial rituals.
High Notes The most marvelous opera house of all was La Fenice, in Venice, which was destroyed by fire in 1996. The Italians are working to rebuild it, and I'm supposed to do the opening performance. I also love La Scala; it's magical when the lights go down. And the Palais Garnier [Place de L'Opéra] in Paris—it's so beautiful.
Light Matters Most public spaces are terribly lit. I recently designed the lighting in the foyer of Hamburg's Side Hotel. Everything's on timed dimmers so the light changes slowly.