Monsters of Grace, the latest in a series of collaborations between composer Philip Glass and theater mastermind Robert Wilson, is commonly described in press releases as a "still evolving" work.
Glass is the first to suggest that this tag might be a bit charitable. Truth be told, when he and Wilson opened the 3-D digital opera in Los Angeles last May, six of the 13 complex, digital-animation films that Wilson had conceived were not yet ready. It was a potentially disastrous situation that might have devastated more traditional artists, but Glass and Wilson have never been chained to standard concepts of what opera or theater had to be. So, with characteristic postmodern adaptability, Wilson adjusted to the situation and decided to temporarily stage the six scenes that lacked film. To hear Glass tell it, this act of necessity actually helped the two artists to see their work more clearly.
"Gradually, as the films were completed, we substituted films for the performance part, and by December the films were completed," Glass says. "Oddly enough, though, that was not the end of the piece. It still continued to change, as we began to play around with the live-performance element. At first, we had the performers in the pit, and you didn't see them, and then eventually we brought them out of the pit and put them on the stage and lit them. So the relationship of the mechanically produced image and the live performers started changing. So, to be truthful, it has resolved into the final form, but only in the last month. Between May and February, it was evolving."
Glass concedes that a few months ago the piece was not firmly connecting with audiences, but says that all the elements have recently fallen into place. He cites a recent performance in Kansas--which drew 1,800 people and was saluted with a standing ovation at the end--as a definite turning point for the mixed-media work.
The Glass-Wilson alliance goes back to 1973, when Glass became aware of Wilson's unconventional approach to theater, which boldly eschewed time and narrative restrictions, and Wilson became aware of Glass' modern approach to so-called "serious music."
Their partnership crystallized in 1977 with Einstein on the Beach, an opera that seemingly defied all the rules of successful musical theater. It ran for an endurance-taxing four and a half hours with no intermissions. It featured only one soloist and a small chorus that counted out numbers in endless succession. It offered no story, but rather a more abstract sense of changing moods, created by the interaction of Glass' hypnotic, repetitive music and Wilson's images of a train, trial, prison and spaceship. This work not only shook up the opera world, it served as a template for Laurie Anderson's entire career.
Although he and Wilson have collaborated several times since Einstein, Glass particularly longed to team up on a project that could be a touring production. That's how Monsters of Grace came to be.
"I was anxious to do a piece with Bob that I could travel around the country with, 'cause though he's extremely well-known in Europe, he's hardly known in America at all," Glass says. "He's considered probably the pre-eminent director and theater author--if I can put it that way--in Europe today. And he's an American who isn't seen in America.
"My question for myself was: How can I bring Bob's work to the audience, which I have developed myself over these years? There are probably 40 cities where I have played with some regularity over the last 20 years. So Bob and I began with a series of story boards that were basically images. The idea was to do a piece that we could travel with that would have the essence of what our collaboration was about, which was images and music."
Glass and Wilson took the finished story boards to producer Jed Wheeler, who informed them that the opera would require the transporting of three truckloads of equipment, and that it would take three days to load into each city. The concept seemed hopelessly impractical.
"Then [Wheeler] came up with the idea of a film that realized the images in a three-dimensional way," Glass says, "so that we basically could show the way Bob wanted to see the work, but in fact we could take it in one truck and load it into a theater in about eight hours, which is what we do. So we can sometimes do three or four cities in the same week.
"So it began four or five years ago with Bob and I making story boards and drawings and looking at the structure of a piece, and ended four or five years later with a team of animators, maybe 24 or 28 work stations, translating these images into additional computerized formats, which were then rendered into two 70mm films, which were then projected through these 3-D glasses."
In its completed form, Monsters of Grace takes the Glass-Wilson marriage of music and image into a strange but fascinating world that often feels like a more exotic and surreal version of virtual reality. For Glass, a natural collaborator who's written for every imaginable medium (including such acclaimed film works as Koyaanisqatsi, Mishima and The Thin Blue Line), Monsters of Grace was a struggle, because he was composing for images that had not yet been realized.
"We didn't know what we were doing," he says with a laugh. "We told our presenters ahead of time, 'We're bringing a piece. We don't know what state it'll be in.' I think fortunately I had been on the road for so many years with pieces that people trusted us and they said, 'Whatever it is, just bring it.' We invited them to be part of this experiment really. But we didn't always know how it was going to work. I didn't have a lot of anxiety about it; it was actually exciting."
Glass' most famous operas have generally focused on the life or philosophy of a famous historical figure, albeit in a highly elliptical way. After taking on the 20th century's greatest scientific genius with Einstein on the Beach, he explored Mohandas Gandhi's thoughts on nonviolent resistance with Satyagraha, and the king of ancient Egypt credited with being the first monotheist in Akhnaten.
For Monsters of Grace, Glass and Wilson adapted the 13th-century poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi, with English translations provided by Coleman Barks. The opera not only enabled them to exploit cutting-edge technology (which in Glass' case included sampling instruments from Turkey, Ethiopia and Persia), but to re-examine their own evolving aesthetics.
"About every five or six years, we get together and we make another piece," Glass says. "So in between what happens is he's off doing operas, and I'm off doing operas and performances, and then we come back together again and we look at each other's work and see that they've changed. For Bob, for example, the importance of the lighting has evolved tremendously and also the staging, the movement, has become an essential part of the work, which was not so true with pieces like Einstein, which were basically static images.
"In my case, the text has become more important, the actual words that people sing, and the meaning of the words have changed, therefore the way the voice is used has changed. So we come back and look at these changes, and look at the commonalities that haven't changed."
The major commonality that hasn't changed is a willingness to find meaning in the inscrutable and to trust the power of mood and rhythmic flow as a substitute for old-fashioned theatrical devices. Monsters of Grace might not seem like opera to those weaned on Bizet, but it meets all the crucial requirements: it's a marriage of musical and visual elements that slowly builds to an emotional climax.
"What Bob and I share is a commitment to a joint work of image and music that resonate and reverberate together and that have a kind of meaningfulness," Glass says. "Sometimes it's very abstract and sometimes it's narrative.
"With this piece, sometimes the music will seem close to the image and sometimes it'll seem very distant from it. In that way, the audience has to find a place vis-à-vis the piece, in each piece. It's quite different from most film or theater, where the opening moments of the piece will determine what your relationship will be throughout the whole evening."
Monsters of Grace is scheduled to be performed on Saturday, March 27, at Gammage Auditorium in Tempe. Showtime is 8 p.m.