In 1976 the composer Philip Glass and the theater maker Robert
Wilson unveiled "Einstein on the Beach,"
an opera that expanded the horizons of musical theater. It was
nearly five hours long with
no intermission, no plot, no narrative and a sung text that
consisted entirely of numbers and solfège
Glass and Wilson's latest
collaboration takes their fondness for experimenting with theatrical time
and space literally into another dimension.
"Monsters of Grace," which opens on Wednesday at the Brooklyn
Academy of Music and proceeds on a 24-city American tour, is billed as a digital
opera in three dimensions.
The "opera" part is a bit
misleading. It might more accurately be described as a 68-minute song cycle
in 13 scenes, 9 of them settings of poems by the 13th-century Sufi mystic
Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, translated and
adapted by the American poet Coleman Barks. While the Philip Glass Ensemble
performs the score, the audience views a 3-D computer-animated film through
special polarized lenses. In contrast to
the thrills and spills associated with 3-D films, "Monsters of Grace"
dwells meditatively on such scenes as a boy riding
an old-fashioned bicycle and a helicopter hovering
over the Great Wall of China.
The slow-moving, dreamlike imagery
will be immediately recognizable to fans of Wilson, whose abstract,
often controversial spectacles have appeared at theaters and opera houses around
the world. But it has been executed by
Kleiser-Walczak Construction, the computer-animation company
that has supplied special effects for Hollywood movies like "Stargate"
and "Mortal Kombat Annihilation."
High art meets high tech.
"It is a brave encroachment into
unexplored territory," Bernard Holland wrote in The New York Times
in April, when "Monsters of Grace" was performed as a work in progress
in Los Angeles.
"For those who wondered when
classical music would get around to connecting with the rest of the world,
this may be the beginning of an answer." Connecting
Glass and Wilson, denizens of the international high-art circuit, with the world
of mainstream America was very much on the
mind of the producer, Jedediah Wheeler, when he enlisted
them to produce the touring theater piece that became "Monsters of
Grace." Wheeler's company,
International Production Associates, represents Glass and produced a revival of
"Einstein on the Beach" in 1992.
Glass has gained widespread fame
through his concerts and film scores, from Godfrey Reggio's "Koyaanisqatsi"
to Martin Scorsese's "Kundun." But Wilson remains relatively unknown
in the United States, however revered he
may be throughout Europe. In recent years he created three rock
musicals at the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg, Germany -- "The Black
Rider" and "Alice," with scores
by Tom Waits, and "Time Rocker," composed by Lou Reed -- and a second
opera with Glass, "The White
Raven," in Lisbon.
To help remedy that homeland neglect,
Wheeler proposed that Glass and Wilson cook up something
more portable than "Einstein," which, in the revival, took three days
to install. From 1993 to 1996, they
developed storyboards for "Monsters of Grace." (The title originated
as a slip of the tongue, when Wilson,
touring his one-man rendition of "Hamlet," found himself repeatedly
mangling the line "Angels and
ministers of grace defend us.") Wheeler, seeing the designs, was bemused to
encounter such images as a hawk circling a
helicopter and a giant foot landing in the desert. So much
In 1996, while pondering how to build
such props for a stage spectacle, Wheeler visited the Massachusetts
Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, where he met Jeff Kleiser and Diana
Walczak, a married couple whose computer-animation firm rented space in the
They showed him their studio, where
they are now creating "The Adventures of Spiderman," a seven-minute
3-D installation for a Universal Studios theme park in Orlando, Fla. Intrigued
by the technology, Wheeler came to realize that although the initial costs might
be higher, a film with music would be
cheaper to tour than a live Wilson spectacle. Glass was game. Wilson, though
dubious, eventually agreed. None of them knew what they were getting into.
"When we began talking about a
digital realization, there was some concern that it would be very cold,"
Glass said recently from Naples. "I wanted the text to have a strong human
element." The combination of intense
spirituality and erotic passion in Rumi's poems appealed to Glass, who had
recently created three works based on films by
"The basic thrust of Rumi's work
is seeing the ordinary world as a transcendent world, which is very much
like Cocteau," said Glass, who is himself a practitioner of Tibetan
Buddhism. "I'm very interested in
people who look at the world and transfigure it through their own spiritual
When he finally saw the animation
Kleiser-Walczak had created from Wilson's storyboards, Glass was
astonished. "It wasn't cold at all," he said. "Even though
computer graphics is all done by mathematics,
it looks like a photograph of a ring of fire on the ocean or a chair descending
from the sky, stuff that's impossible to
put on the stage. You get into this funny place where you don't know if you're
looking at something real or something in a dream. Although he's never told me
this, I think they really are Bob's
Ordinarily Wilson is in charge of
every detail in exposing his dreams to the public. This time Kleiser-Walczak
translated his rough sketches into computer animation. Using state-of-the-art
software still in development, animation artists
created digital objects, in each case using a grid of 50,000
or more spatial coordinates. Different software was used to position the 3-D
"synthespians" in space, and
still more software provided realistic light and shading. Each scene took 4 to
12 weeks to create.
Kleiser-Walczak made a deal to test
emerging software on equipment donated by Silicon Graphics (the
company that produced the dinosaurs for "Jurassic Park"), so the
entire $1.7 million budget could be spent
on people. Once the design work was completed, everything had to be rendered
into 2,000 lines of resolution (four times the
quality of conventional television resolution) and transferred
to 70-mm film. Sixty processors connected by high-speed phone lines have worked
at the transfer 24 hours a day since
February. “No one has ever made an
animated 3-D film this long," Kleiser said. It would have been preposterously
expensive to produce commercially. (The four minutes of 3-D animation the
company has created for the Spiderman ride cost
between $1 and $2 million per minute, Kleiser said.)
The process was so laborious and time-consuming that only half the film was
completed in time for the first showings
last spring. In Los Angeles and at subsequent stops on the tour, actors filled
in the unfinished sequences. The BAM performances are the first with the
However daunting the technical
aspects of the production may have been, the biggest challenge for Kleiser-Walczak
was learning to communicate with Wilson. The first scene, for example, was to
include bars of light, space and clouds.
"Our first big project, in 1990,
was a PBS special called 'The Astronomers,' where we created 12 minutes
of cosmic phenomena," Kleiser said. "Based on that experience, we came
up with a suggestion that included a pink
galaxy in one area and something else in another area, representing the
night sky. All wrong. He wanted horizontal swatches of pure light and
Wilson conceived the scenes as
alternating among landscapes, still-lifes and portraits. Kleiser-Walczak
showed him how his concepts of distance and scale could be translated into a 3-D
moment for every scene. An ocean landscape could
recede to infinity; a portrait of a severed hand could
appear to dangle before the audience's eyes.
The taste level was in constant
negotiation. "In the work we usually do, we always strive to inject an
element of cool," said Kent Mikalsen,
Kleiser-Walczak's creative director. "Robert Wilson doesn't need
that. He would often reject stuff, saying, 'Do this, but not like Disney.'
Kleiser acknowledged, "Our
visual vocabulary comes from incredibly fast-paced and expensive MTV-style
editing," while Wilson's visual reference points were painting and stage
lighting. Understanding what he wanted in
terms of color was especially frustrating without constant access
to Wilson, whose busy schedule rarely kept him in one place for long. "He'd
look at something and say, 'Too sweet,'
" Kleiser said. "We wondered if he meant too saturated, or too light,
or too bright. Finally we realized that he meant too red. The project wasn't
going anywhere until we could figure out
what he was talking about."
In retrospect, Wilson admits to mixed
feelings about "Monsters of Grace," the first theater piece he has
conceived but not directed himself. "Usually I'm the kind of parent who
stayed very close to the child even when it
grew up," he said recently from Milan, Italy. "This is like being a
dog with a litter of puppies that went away
six weeks later. This one left me early. Here I was working with people who
didn't know my work, in a medium I didn't know. Often the colors turned out to
be something I would never have done.
"Maybe that's O.K.," he
added, turning philosophical about surrendering control of every detail. "I'm
sure Merce Cunningham wouldn't have minded."
While Wilson views
"Monsters of Grace" as the one that got away, Glass,
who is onstage for every performance,
sees it differently. For him, the work continues his lifelong
exploration of the relationship
of music to image and text. "Traditionally in the
theater, whether it's a Tennessee Williams
play or 'The Lion King,' that relationship is defined in the
opening moments," he said. "The director
and the designer take care that that universe of discourse
will never be disturbed. This piece doesn't
work that way. The triangulation between you, what you're
seeing and what you're hearing is
different for each number. Sometimes you're close, sometimes
"We begin with a remarkable
poem, 'Where Everything Is Music.' You hear the whole poem before you
see a picture. It's an amazing poem for a musician to hear. It is about what
music is about: 'We have fallen into the
place where everything is music.' Every night when we perform it, I look at the
players, and I look at the singer, and I feel
profoundly moved by them."
Sidebar: An Ancient Poet Suddenly
In the 1990's, the ecstatic spiritual
poetry of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi has become all but ubiquitous.
Lines from Rumi show up not only in Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's
"Monsters of Grace" but also in a
series of Cy Twombly paintings in the de Menil collection in Houston.
The New Age health guru Deepak Chopra
has just released "A Gift of Love," a CD of Rumi recited by
an unlikely assortment of celebrities, from Madonna and Goldie Hawn to the civil
rights activist Rosa Parks. The poet Robert
Bly and the storyteller Michael Meade, who incorporated Rumi's poetry
into men's-movement gatherings, both appear in Hayden Reiss's recent
documentary, "Rumi:Poet of the Heart," narrated by Debra Winger. And
Oliver Stone is developing a feature film on the life
of the 13th-century Sufi mystic, who founded the Mevlevi Order of Whirling
If any one person could be said to be
responsible for the Rumi renaissance, it would have to be Coleman
Barks, the poet and translator from Athens, Ga., whose Rumi books have sold
450,000 copies since 1984. Not since the
popularity of "The Prophet," by Kahlil Gibran, in the 1960's, has a
poet made such a dent in American popular culture.
Born in 1207 and raised in what is
now Turkey, Rumi was a traditional religious scholar until he met Shams
of Tabriz, who sparked a spiritual awakening. After Shams disappeared four years
later (probably murdered by jealous
relatives), Rumi spent the rest of his life composing verse that addressed
love for God and love for the absent friend as variations of each other.
Although Rumi is recognized as a
spiritual authority throughout the Moslem world, most English translations
have been either drily academic or blandly homiletic. In 1976, Mr. Bly handed
Mr. Barks a copy of the Englishman A. J.
Arberry's translations, saying, "These poems need to be released
from their cages." Around the same time, Mr. Barks became a student of the
Sri Lankan Sufi master Bawa Muhaiyaddeen.
Merging his own earthy poetic instincts with his apprenticeship in Sufi
mysticism, Mr. Barks began to capture Rumi's outpourings in language that
uncovered the sensual and humorous aspects
of spiritual longing:
If anyone wonders how Jesus
raised the dead,
don't try to explain the miracle.
Kiss me on the lips.
Like this. Like this.
Why are contemporary readers so drawn
"I don't have an explanation
myself," Mr. Barks said recently from his home in Athens, "but Robert
Bly says that when Christianity excluded the
Gnostic material from the gospels, the ecstatic material, there
was a lack felt in the religion. There's some thirst, some need for an intimate
connection with the divine, and
simultaneously some grief about its absence, that Rumi knows well." A
stocky, bearded Southern gentleman, Mr. Barks speaks with the kind of endearing
drawl that adds an extra syllable to the
word "love." "Rumi uses the language of romance and drunkenness
and addiction, because he's trying to
explode those love categories into a wider kind of love that is just the
atmosphere you walk within. It's not sexual, I don't think, but it's beyond
gender, beyond the old categories. Rumi
says: 'I'm not Christian or Jew or Moslem, not Hindu, Buddhist or Zen. I'm not
from the East or the West. I belong to the
New York Times, December 6,