Late Tuesday afternoon, Robert Wilson arrived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the first time in three months, having been whisked straight from Kennedy Airport. Sunday night is the American stage premiere of the fifth act of his “Civil Wars: A Tree Is Best Measured When It Is Down.” Itself a two-hour-plus, full-dress opera with music by Philip Glass, this fifth act is as complex and visually intricate a production as any Mr. Wilson has assayed.
The question is, how can he mount such a complicated production in so short a time? The question is especially acute because Mr. Wilson emerged from the communal world of downtown avant-garde theater, and is famed for not only the slowness of his dramatic rhythms but also his own painstaking way of working.
“The Civil Wars,” a sequence of dreamy stage-pictures without overt plot but interweaving a variety of world myths and historical personages, was conceived as a multinational offering for the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival. Separate countries created their own evening-length portions, all conceived by Mr. Wilson with different collaborators and directed and designed by him. And then all the segments were to come together in Los Angeles for several performances, each lasting up to 12 hours.
The fifth (and final) act, which features such characters as a Snow Owl, an Earth Mother, Garibaldi, Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, an Eagle, a Rain Priestess and the Sun, was the Italian contribution, created at the Rome Opera in 1984. Unfortunately, the money raised was insufficient to stage the complete Los Angeles performances or, later, a planned complete production for the Texas Sesquicentennial this year.
The very way Mr. Wilson is now able to oversee a production as complicated as the fifth act of “The Civil Wars” in less than a week dramatizes the changes in his life over the last decade. He isn't working differently so much as more efficiently.
The Brooklyn production of the “Civil Wars” fifth act didn't spring from nothing, of course, and that's the first key to his new methodology: working incrementally over time. After the Rome performances in the spring of 1984, the act was revived last spring by the Netherlands Opera and toured throughout Holland, with the Rome costumes but with newly constructed sets. The Brooklyn production will use several of the Rome-Dutch principal singers, the Rome costumes and, basically, the Dutch sets, although with a new mechanical device to realize Mr. Wilson's grand finale, as Hercules descends from Heaven into a panorama of what seems like all the world's plant life parading majestically across the back of the stage.