Robert Wilson's Travel Tips
Published: May 2009
By Carol Isaak Barden
Robert Wilson on ritual ceremonies, how to get all your carry-ons aboard,
and where to find the best museums
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.
It's Better in Texas I love the museums in Texas—they're remarkable for their lighting. One of the most successful is the Menil Collection in Houston, by Renzo Piano, which provides rich simplicity and a beautiful mix of artificial and natural light. I love the scale of the building—the way it's situated in a neighborhood of little wooden houses painted the same gray as the museum. I also like the Rothko Chapel, which Philip Johnson designed, and the Cy Twombly Gallery, also by Piano. Louis I. Kahn was one of the best architects for light, and his Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth—with vaulted ceilings and integrated daylighting—is another favorite of mine. The new Beck building of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston is also a wonderful crafting of space and light, by Rafael Moneo. And I'm a great admirer of Tadao Ando, who's designing the new Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth, so I'm looking forward to that opening next month.
Best Hotels For years I've stayed at the Vier Jahreszeiten in Munich. They always give me an extra room to use as a studio. I like the service, quiet, and comfortable beds of the Hong Kong and Singapore Ritz-Carltons. I love Amanpuri, on Phuket—especially villa 15, because it has water views and cool breezes.
Be Here Now The world is my library and inspiration. For me, there's no separation between work and travel.
Robert Wilson's new production of Richard Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten opens December 9 at the Opéra National de Paris, Bastille (33-8/36-69-78-68).
Though he couldn't be more modern, Robert Wilson has a yen for ancient ceramics and carvings. Here, a few of his favorite shops around the world.
Daeng Iskander Indonesian pieces, stone sculpture, wooden ancestral figures. 99B jl. Tangkuban Perahu Kerobokan, Kuta, Bali, Indonesia 62-361/731-109
Jim's Antique Co. Shop Neolithic Chinese objects. No. 8, G/F, 183 Hollywood Rd., central, Hong Kong 852/2858-5576
Rabier Cy Art African and pre-Columbian antiquities. 8—10 Rue des Minimes, Brussels, Belgium; 32-2/512-8674
Alain de Monbrison African tribal pieces. 2 rue des Beaux-Arts, Paris 33-1/46-34-05-20