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Classical 101

Robert Wilson's "Silent Operas"

Above: excerpts from Einstein on the Beach, music by Philip Glass, directed by Robert Wilson. Recorded May 4 and 5, 2012 in London, England. Silence might seem like a strange starting place for rehearsing an opera production, but it has been legendary theater director Robert Wilson's secret weapon for years. Wilson, who famously collaborated with Philip Glass on Einstein on the Beach and has been on the cutting edge of theater since founding an experimental theater company in the 1960s, recently wrote about his rehearsal process in Limelight magazine.  At the beginning of the staging process, Wilson told Limelight, the singers work on stage, but they don't sing. Instead, they and Wilson work on their physical positions and movements on stage, and they experience timing in the absence of music and sung or spoken words:

We begin to listen to the silences and how they are structured, and later I add text and music, Wilson said.

Wilson's penchant for beginning the staging process of staging operas in silence is revolutionary. Some composers through the ages, not least among them Richard Wagner, have asserted that the music of opera is at best first among the equal elements of libretto, costumes, gesture, scenery, lighting and the genre's other theatrical aspects. But production values alone don't sell tickets. Opera-goers do still plunk down large sums to hear the high notes soar from divas' throats over a lush orchestra. They go to be entwined in the melodies of classic arias and to hear the orchestra, that great operatic spoiler, foreshadow that Mimì is not going to be cured of her consumption and that Siegfried is the fearless hero who will rescue Brünnhilde. In other words, in a genre where noise from singers and orchestra musicians has cornered the market, Wilson's "silent treatment" nevertheless has found a unique niche. Read more: Robert Wilson's Theatrical Universe  (Limelight)