Grace Under Pressure

In Monsters of Grace, Philip Glass and Robert Wilson may have created theater for the next century. Not easily, of course.

You rarely get ideas by yourself," admits Philip Glass. "Things happen much more collectively."

"Collective" aptly describes the development of Monsters of Grace, the latest work by Glass and theater/opera director Robert Wilson. In 1976, the avant-garde giants changed the face of 20th-century musical theater with Einstein on the Beach, a landmark five-hour work with no intermission, no plot, no narrative, and sung text that consists only of numbers and solfege syllables.

Now, nearly 25 years later, Monsters may prove to be as groundbreaking to the 21st century as Einstein was to the 20th, both in terms of the technology employed and the teamwork needed to execute it.

Touted as a "digital opera in three dimensions," Monsters is a 73-minute work in 13 scenes, nine of which are settings of poems by 13th-century Sufi mystic Jalaluddin Rumi. The Philip Glass Ensemble performs the score live with singers while the audience -- wearing special polarized lenses -- views 3-D computer-animated images projected on a large screen.

The impetus for Monsters of Grace came from Einstein on the Beach, which despite its significance has never been staged in the U.S. outside of New York City, due to the high costs involved in taking it on the road. "According to the history books, [Einstein] is a masterwork that redirected the way performers think about what's possible," says International Production Associates founder Jedediah Wheeler. "To this day [it] hasn't been seen in its own country. And that was a big problem for me."

Wheeler produced the 1984 and 1992 revivals of Einstein at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and has worked on several projects with both Glass and Wilson since. "I wanted to do a work they could tour, that would bring the confluence of the Wilson and Glass sensibilities to people," he explains.

Glass was also interested in doing a touring project with Wilson. "I stayed mainly in America," says the composer. "But Bob went to Europe. And what I discovered is that his work has not been seen very much in the States. And what I wanted to do was bring the work of my longtime associate and collaborator here, and to make a traveling piece that we could take around the country."

So in the summer of 1993, the two retreated to Wilson's studio in Water Mill, N.Y. Working from Wheeler's directive to explore the relationship between objects, light, and sound in a theater, the affable, voluble musician talked, and the quiet, fastidious director drew. When they returned to Wheeler, they had a complete show. "It was about 90 minutes long, with 13 scenes," Wheeler recalls. "And it was glorious to look at -- except that it couldn't be done."

Among the images on Wilson's storyboards: a giant foot slowly landing in the desert, a helicopter hovering over the Great Wall of China, and a hand appearing from nowhere and pulling a 35-foot sword out of the ocean.

So much for touring.
To offset the costs of trying to stage these fantastical images, Wheeler started asking about computer programs that could design all of the elements and time out the entire production before it ever got into a theater. Someone suggested that Wheeler visit Massachusetts-based Kleiser-Walczak Construction Co., which created the computer animation for movies like Stargate and Judge Dredd.

"We showed Jed the work we'd been doing in stereoscopic computer animation," says Jeff Kleiser. "He thought that might be able to solve some of the staging problems that they had for Monsters of Grace. We started thinking about it as a way of executing certain difficult effects onstage. Then my partner, Diana, said, 'Why don't we just do the whole thing in computer animation?' "

"By the time I finished the meeting," recalls Wheeler, "the whole show was going to be done on the computer. I could take all of the expenses I would incur touring the show, and I would reduce those costs and shift the expense into the film."

Done commercially, the cost of that much stereoscopic computer animation would have been even more outrageous than if Wheeler had tried to stage the work conventionally. But Kleiser-Walczak got help from Silicon Graphics, which loaned the animation company 50 processors, and Alias Wavefront, which lent software.

"I realized that we had a unique hybrid here, where the special-effects world embraces the high-art world and vice versa, and high and low find a common ground," says Wheeler.

High art would meet high tech in the longest 3-D animation film ever made.

The trouble with doing something unprecedented is that, well, it has no precedent. "None of us knew anything about it," says Glass. "There's no owner's manual for this kind of work, and there's no model for it." But Glass, who's done live music with film for works like La Belle et la Bete and Koyaanisqatsi, needed less convincing than Wilson.

"Bob didn't know what I was talking about," recalls Wheeler. "Bob is a traditionalist -- within his realm. Philip is more of an experimentalist in many ways; he's up for a good idea."

Glass' one reservation about the animated film was that the computer images might end up feeling too cold. "I hadn't ever seen it," says Glass. "So it was without reason. But it was especially why I was moved to a poet like Rumi. It's a very openhearted, warm, humanistic kind of poetry. The second consideration was that the world of magic and transformation that Rumi talks about is very much the world of magic and transformation that you see in the work of Wilson."

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