Einstein on the Beach has finally come to Toronto, an opera whose importance and influence is out of all proportion to the actual number who saw it. Einstein’s a perfect example of that crazy 20th century phenomenon, where the idea of the thing is more important than the thing itself. There have been many books & articles, lectures, and even films about the work.
And now I have finally seen it tonight in a production authorized by Robert Wilson & Philip Glass, conducted by Michael Riesman with choreography by Lucinda Childs, at the Sony Centre in Toronto.
While in some respects it’s very much of its time (full of 1970s references such as “David Cassidy”, “I feel the Earth move”, and “male chauvinist pig”) its themes transcend its era. Glass reinvented himself after Einstein, writing the other two “portrait” operas (Satyagraha and Akhnaten) in an accessible style that has made Glass relatively mainstream, whereas Einstein on the Beach is unknown but for the audio recordings that created a cult following for this opera. Listening to the work tonight I remembered the old avant garde Glass.
Robert Wilson too has become relatively mainstream in the opera world as a director. I can’t help noticing an echo of Wilson in Robert Lepage’s designs (the compartments of the space-ship scene replicated in Lepage‘s Damnation de Faust, even as Wilson himself paid homage in that scene to Lang’s Metropolis). It’s curious that bodies and parts of the set shift in slow-motion several times during Einstein, considering that I encountered a similar slow motion movement vocabulary from Melati Suryodarmo this afternoon at Stewart Goodyear’s Beethoven marathon.
Einstein is the ultimate open work, daring us to make the meaning. For much of the work, the text is functional without any discursive meaning; we get choruses singing syllables of sol-fa (such as doh-re-mi), or sequences of numbers. At other times the text is a banal conversational chatter, repeated over and over; the obsessive repetition argues for the importance of the words even as the discursive content teases us with passages full of banality.
While superficially it’s an opera that is very elusive in meaning, it employs several recognizable conventions from opera.
- Dance functions as a kind of diversion –in the old sense of “divertissement”—to rescue the audience, who are taxed by a work exceeding four hours in length, and often challenging our ability to decode
- Instrumental music serves a function we’ve seen before in the orchestral interludes of music drama, taking us into the realm of the unconscious or the inarticulate. And although much of the music is in those patterns of repeated notes that tend to induce a meditative state and imply stasis, at least one –the spaceship—seems to suggest an almost Wagnerian build-up to a climax.
- The non-verbal figure of Einstein playing the violin seems to use music to escape the horrors of life
I can’t help noticing –listening to the television in the background as i write this—that Einstein is roughly the same age as Saturday Night Live. But where one has been an open book and part of the mainstream, the other remains mostly a mystery, only known through theatre history books, and now this production that’s traveling around North America. I hope that Glass & Wilson will authorize a DVD of this production so that the work can be better known.