Einstein on the Beach, the landmark opera by director and designer Robert Wilson, composer Philip Glass and choreographer Lucinda Childs, came back to the Brooklyn Academy of Music this weekend. It was the first time the production has been mounted in New York in twenty years.
Glass’s work, both old and new, has been prominently performed across the globe over the past year as musicians celebrate the composer’s 75th birthday. Here in New York, it’s been possible to see his rarely performed early works written for the Philip Glass Ensemble, like Music in Twelve Parts (at the Park Avenue Armory in February) and now Einstein (playing through September 23rd). The composer will also be performing in September at All Tomorrow's Parties' I'll Be Your Mirror Festival at Pier 36.
For listeners more familiar with Glass’s symphonic work written for full orchestra (like Symphony No. 9, which premiered at Carnegie Hall in January and became a surprise bestseller on iTunes) and his film scores (Koyannisqatsi, The Hours, The Illusionist), the early work can be challenging. The repetitive structures are far more pronounced, especially when heard within the limited instrumentation of the Ensemble. The musical and cultural contexts date to the 1970s.
So does Einstein work today? Does it live up to the hype of its decade-long absence?
Yes and yes, though it is difficult to access initially. Einstein is a hard piece for a modern audience to grasp, perhaps even more so than when it debuted. Glass told this writer in January that he was shocked at how avant-garde theater has failed to evolve in the past four decades. In that respect, Einstein may be even more ahead of the theater of 2012 than that of the 1970s.
Einstein's glacial sense of time is also more alien to today’s audience, because Wilson’s work is deliberately long and slow, and 2012-ers are inherently fast. Not using a cell phone for four and a half hours can generate feelings of disorientation that the 1976 audience would never have experienced.
This weekend, though, Einstein didn’t appear sluggish at all, with its nearly constant motion and its relentless score. The musical and visual movements are hard to discern at first. But the effect is similar to sitting on a plane and thinking the plane next to you is moving forward, before realizing that it’s really your own plane going in reverse.
Einstein's cast (violinist Jennifer Koh in the title role on Saturday night) is exceptional and technically flawless, with singers performing by memory the kind of complicated music that usually requires sight-reading. The biggest risk as the piece began (seemingly in progress long before curtain time, as a pair of women recited barely audible numbers while starting into the house) was that it might register with the audience intellectually but not emotionally.
Indeed, there were moments that were remote and cold. But there was also surprising warmth and joy, and the audience Saturday night reacted with noticeable emotional connection to several beautiful, almost sentimental tableaus: Einstein in a big, white wig staring solemnly and playing the violin; Childs’s two big dances, which are such perfect representations of being human, they make you want to jump up and join in; the couple who can’t quite touch each other on the train caboose (and who may just kill each other); the solo voice singing to the solo beam of light as it disappears into the dark cosmos; the brilliant homage to Einstein’s famous tongue photo; the fragile children trapped inside hovering glass boxes, spinning through smoke and space. Most powerful of all was final text, a lullaby delivered by a bus driver:
"The night should be a time of peace and tranquility, a time to relax and be calm. We have need of a soothing story to banish the disturbing thoughts of the day, to set at rest our troubled minds, and put at ease our ruffled spirits."
What does any of this have to do Albert Einstein?
Einstein is personified as a violinist, which he really was (though, as this writer once heard Glass say, not one "good enough to play my music"). Wilson’s images can be interpreted as Einstein’s dreams (and nightmares) of time. Einstein the opera challenges notions of time and space much like the man himself did. Beyond those loose guides, the work leaves room for the audience to make of things what they will.
Einstein on the Beach, in the middle of a world tour, runs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music until September 23rd. The West Coast premiere will be at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall, from October 26th through the 28th.