the CIVIL warS

Robert Wilson’s Vision of Theater as Spectacle

Robert Wilson, the 44-year-old director and mastermind behind some of the most extravagant theatrical spectacles of modern times, has been turning his energies increasingly toward classical theater and opera.

“I'm changing,” the ruddy-faced, 6-foot-3 director from Waco, Tex., said recently. “Increasingly I find myself drawn to classic forms - to Euripides, Shakespeare and grand opera. I'm doing homework.”

One of the reasons that Mr. Wilson, who spends more time in Europe than in the United States, was in New York was to supervise a three-week workshop of Richard Strauss's “Salome” using some of the students who appeared last spring in his production of the German writer Heiner Muller's “Hamletmachine.”

Mr. Wilson's ventures into classical theater and opera have included an iconoclastic production of Euripides' “Alcestis” last spring at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge and a preliminary workshop in Los Angeles for a production of “King Lear” that will commence rehearsals in Hamburg in April and open next September. His forays into grand opera include a new production of Gluck's ''Alceste,'' starring the soprano Jessye Norman, for Stuttgart in December, and a production of “Salome,” starring Eva Marton, for Milan's La Scala in January.

“What I have never liked about conventional opera productions is the way the gestures and decor merely illustrate what we have already heard,” Mr. Wilson said. “In my ‘Salome,’ the events are seen through the mind of King Herod rather than Salome, and the decor has its own structure and logic. When the curtain goes up, the audience will find the head of John the Baptist already sitting on a platform. The singers will be at the side of the stage. ‘The Dance of the Seven Veils’ may create a scandal because there will be neither veils nor dancing.” Increasing Recognition

Although Mr. Wilson is still less of a culture hero in the United States than in Europe, his support here has been growing. “Einstein on the Beach,” his four-and-a-half-hour opera with music by Philip Glass, revived two seasons ago by the Brooklyn Academy of Music at a cost of over $1 million, was a resounding success.

Last year, a smaller-scaled work entitled “The Golden Windows,” Mr. Wilson's shimmering slow-motion visualization of a story by Laura Shapiro, played successfully at the Academy's Next Wave Festival. And the few bits and pieces of his unfinished epic “The Civil Wars” that have been seen in America have received mostly enthusiastic response. Earlier this year, “The Civil Wars” was the unanimous choice of the Pulitzer Prize jury for drama, but the jury's recommendation was not accepted by the Pulitzer board.