On making silent operas and how Einstein on the Beach was supposed to be about Hitler.

I began to make my first works for the theatre in the late 1960s, and they were all silent. This culminated in a major work that was seven hours long – and also silent. It was written with a 13-year-old African-American deaf-mute boy who had never been to school and knew no words. We were supposed to show it only twice in Paris in 1971 but it was a huge success and we ended up playing for five-and-a-half months to 2,200 people every night in a sold-out theatre. The last thing I had expected was to have a career in the theatre, as my background was in architecture and painting. The work was called Deafman Glance, and the French called it a “silent opera”. I started thinking about it and realised that’s exactly what it was: it was structured silences. That was my beginning.

Today if I’m directing The Ring of Wagner, Shakespeare’s King Lear or The Threepenny Opera, I still start directing the work silently. I know it will sound odd, but I’ve twice directed the Ring Cycle and each time I first staged the whole thing silently. That means Brunnhilde will stand in one position for five minutes where she will later be singing, so she begins to understand what it’s like in terms of the physicality of doing the role and what the visual image is like. We begin to listen to the silences and how they are structured, and later I add text and music.

I believe what you see on stage doesn’t have to be an illustration of the music – and it doesn’t have to be an illustration of the text. It can be something that stands on its own. So much of what we see in the theatre is just a decoration of what we are hearing, especially in opera. I just went to a big exhibition in Berlin about Wagner. It was curious that the 25 or so productions in the 20th century of Wagner’s Ring, with the exception of one, all demonstrate that what we see is an illustration of what we are hearing. What was revolutionary about Wagner is that he wrote a musical line and a text line, and the music does not necessarily follow the text. It’s curious to me that no one took the visual book of a Wagner opera and made that something that didn’t always have to follow the music and the text. So that’s what I did when I directed Wagner. I worked on the visual aspect separately and when you put it all together hopefully each element stands on its own – they don’t just illustrate each other.

It’s curious to me that in what we generally call “opera” today, abstraction almost doesn’t exist. You look at modern dance and it doesn’t have to tell a story. You see a man and a woman dancing and it doesn’t have to be a love duet; it’s just a time-space construction. We can look at a contemporary painting and can appreciate it for its colour, form etc. With opera, we very much still want this narrative. With Einstein on the Beach, the opera I wrote with Philip Glass, there was no narrative, it’s abstract, something you can freely associate with. We see trains, because Einstein talked about trains. We see a trial, because they say Einstein put science on trial. There are many references throughout the work, some of which are very specific, but no narrative. Originally, I had planned to stage a work about Hitler, but Phil was adamantly against that. He wanted to do a work on Ghandi, but I wasn’t too sure. Einstein was the right fit for both of us.

Making my new production of The Threepenny Opera, which is coming to Australia, was a challenging experience for me, as I did it in the same theatre where Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill originally staged it in 1928. It was unusual for the actors to structure silently a work they already knew so well. Strangely enough, when I presented my first ever work in 1968 in New York (another silent piece), the son of Bertolt Brecht, Stefan, came backstage afterwards and said, “You would be perfect to do my father’s work, can we meet for lunch?” I didn’t even know who Bertolt Brecht was at the time: I was a kid from Texas and it was very foreign to me. “There’s a production of The Threepenny Opera on Broadway and the direction is all wrong,” he said. “I think you would be the one to come in and rescue it.” I said I didn’t really know anything about theatre. He said, “It doesn’t matter; I’m sure you’re the right one to do it”. This discussion went on for ten days and I ultimately refused as I didn’t think I was qualified enough and hadn’t have enough experience. So it was ironic, but gratifying, that so many years later the Berliner Ensemble asked me to direct it. And I accepted. 

The Berliner Ensemble perform The Threepenny Opera, directed by Robert Wilson, at the Perth Festival from February 8-11.