Letter from Brussels

I can’t put it any plainer than columnist Richard Fairman of the Financial Times, with whom we were sitting last Wednesday in the same ornate auditorium of Brussels’ opera house, La Monnaie. «When you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.» He was referring, of course, to Robert Wilson’s works, and to his current production of Verdi’s «Aida» which last week had its premiere in the neoclassical theater in the heart of the Belgian capital, Ionic columns and the gable relief adorning its facade. In his usual fashion, the Texas-born minimalist was once again director, designer and lighting director. He is well known in Greece for a lecture show in Thessaloniki in 1997, for the 3D film «Monsters of Grace,» a Philip Glass-Robert Wilson collaboration (shown in Athens in the summer of 1998), as well as for the rather unfortunate «Prometheus» – to Iannis Xenakis’s music – staged last year at the Athens Concert Hall. Bob Wilson has set the stage template for the abstract and minimalist past and present. Therefore, the Greek public – or at least the governing elite suited by taste and intellect to determine the course of government – is well acquainted with the standard Wilson production, which invariably involves the use of lighting effects, slow-motion movement and an empty stage filled with elliptical images. Since I have seen many of Wilson’s productions in various locations – from Istanbul to Oporto – I can assure you that you did not miss anything new. When the world-class singers brought in for the occasion – outstanding soprano Norma Fantini as Aida, Hungarian mezzo-soprano Ildiko Komlosi as Amneris, Johan Botha as Radames and the resonant Maxim Mikhailov as the King – sang and (hardly) moved in this Wilsonian Sahara, it was easy to be convinced, believe it or not, that «Aida» works perfectly well without the camels. With the familiar Wilsonian devices, the over-familiar Triumphal March is even more triumphant without the marching. Without the usual sensational choreographed fights, without the cinematically arcane rituals, this minimalistic «Aida» breathed a new intensity into Verdi’s glorious depiction of the decadence of the Egyptian Pharaohs. As Wilson told us, most of his works begin at the Watermill Center, a multidisciplinary arts laboratory located in eastern Long Island, New York. At Watermill, Wilson and his collaborators lay the foundations for each piece, building up from visual imagery to movement on stage and, later, to costumes, words, music and scene designs. The process begins with a series of sketches with which Wilson outlines the entire work. In the case of «Aida,» these sketches were completed in the summer of 1999. To these are added visual images from a variety of sources, along with texts and general ideas. The result is a «visual book» – from which the entire production is constructed – not a script or a score, as in the traditional methods of the theater. So, Aida gave up her fatherland for her love. In a united Europe where 300 million people in 12 European countries recently gave up their national currencies for the use of just a single one, it is interesting to make comparisons. The new currency is simultaneously about opera tickets – whose prices I forgot to ask Claire Jesuran, Monnaie’s amicable press officer who provided me with the free ticket – and about paying 1.36 euros instead of 55 Belgian Francs or 600 drachmas for a hot waffle on a sunny Brussels day, and even about complex questions of economic policy and interdependence in a globalized world.Yet for a Greek abroad, it’s a pleasant surprise to discover that prices here are affordable. Quite a relief.

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