Robert Wilson has been called many things over the course of an illustrious career spanning more than four decades. “Bob” is one of them. “Genius” is another. “The Wieland Wagner of contemporary opera,” “the maestro of the unexpected,” “an iconoclast,” “the towering figure in international experimental theatre” and “a master of all things visual and aural” are some others.
So it’s a bit of a shock to learn that the 71-year-old who’s staged masterpieces such as Einstein on the Beach and Woyzeck is also known as “Pig” Wilson by a select few in Waco, the small Texas city where Wilson was born grew up.
Wilson volunteered the information earlier this week over a lunch of seared albacore tuna salad and a Diet Coke in a restaurant a few blocks from Toronto’s Bluma Appel Theatre, where he’s directing the North American premiere of The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic for the Luminato Festival. He’s called Pig by some former schoolmates, he said with a hearty chuckle, “because when I was seven years old, I was in a cheeseburger-eating contest and I won. I ate 12 burgers, I think, in seven minutes, something like that. Therefore, Pig.”
Wilson, who strikes one as more fastidious than porcine, and whose voice carries nary a trace of his Texas upbringing, still likes hamburgers, loves them, in fact, and happily takes the name of a local ground-beef joint recommended to him. And while he was pleased with his tuna salad, he admitted that if he had his druthers he’d be eating Vietnamese. A big bowl of pho “sounds great,” he said.
Tall, the artist isn’t as lean as he once was, but he remains a handsome, courteous guy under a thinning thatch of close-cut gray hair, wearing tortoise-shell glasses over a broad face, and a dark blue jacket over jeans.
If he’s slowing down by any measure, it’s not apparent, even as he admitted that after “45 years on the road, the travel’s hard.” Although a confirmed New Yorker, he acknowledged that he’s “much better known in Europe” than in North America. In Berlin alone in the last 10 years, he’s had “something like nine premieres.” After Toronto – the last performance of Life and Death is June 17 – he returns home to New York for a few days, then flies to England where he’s mounting a stage adaptation of a little-known Russian “absurdist text” called The Old Woman, by the equally little-known Stalin-era avant-gardist Daniil Kharms. This is for the Manchester International Festival, where The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic had its world premiere two years ago.
As ever, it’s a collaboration with the best – Mikhail Baryshnikov, Willem Dafoe (who’s also in Toronto for Life and Death) and the veteran musical director Hal Willner. Farther along is a reunion with Tom Waits, with whom Wilson worked on The Black Rider in 1990, Alice in 1990 and Woyzeck in 2002. That new collaboration is going to be about Depression-era desperados Bonnie and Clyde.
Of course, he knows everyone – when he says Misha, he means Baryshnikov; Lou is Lou Reed, natch – and anyone who doesn’t know him wants to. As our luncheon wended to an end, somehow the name of French designer Pierre Cardin came up. I told Wilson I thought he was dead but, no, Wilson informed me, he’s alive and 90. Then he mentioned how Cardin produced one of his earliest works, 1971’s Deafman Glance, in Paris where it ran for more than five months and drew an audience of 2,200 each evening. “I lived with him [during the run],” Wilson observed, recalling that his host had “a disconcerting habit of talking about himself in the third-person, so he’d ask me, ‘Do you think Pierre Cardin should design the interior of this car?’ Now how was I supposed to answer that?”