I feel the
'Einstein on the Beach' lands in Berkeley
by Michael McDonagh
The dim light in the room makes me pay attention. There's a wall of tiny charcoal drawings in sequenced rows, and strung out on the opposite one is music paper covered with handwritten notes, while projected on the wall between is a black-and-white sound video. It's a show of designer/director Robert Wilson's book and composer Philip Glass' autograph score for their first opera together, Einstein on the Beach (1975-76), with archival footage from its 1976 production, which New York's Morgan Library is presenting through November at financier J.P. Morgan's spectacular mansion there. But it didn't prepare me for what Einstein would feel like live when I caught it this September at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Opera House with a rapt audience. The evocative power of its images and music made it live up to and even surpass its reputation as one of the seminal masterworks of 20th-century music theatre.
My late composer friend Earle Brown once told me that he thought that "the avant garde is like a scout who goes ahead to find something, and if it doesn't come back with anything, there's no reason to follow." But Einstein came back with lots, and the stylized theatrics of John Adams' first opera with Peter Sellars Nixon in China (1987) would have been unthinkable if Einstein hadn't gotten there first. I bet it will cast a spell as potent as it did at BAM when Cal Performances presents the Philip Glass Ensemble under Michael Riesman, and the Lucinda Childs Dance Company, performing Einstein at Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall Oct. 26-28, as part of its international tour celebrating Glass' 75th birthday year.
(Photo: Lucie Jansch)
The 18th-century poet William Blake could have been speaking of Einstein when he wrote that "energy is eternal delight." The German scientist clearly unlocked its secrets and its dangers when he published his theory of relativity in Bern, Switzerland, in 1905. That theory had as much to do with time as speed, and Einstein 's greatest achievement may be how it toys with both, and keeps its audience with it all the way. Much has been made of how slowly things happen here – this is true of most of Wilson and Glass' work – and how beautiful it is to look at, which isn't surprising because Wilson paints miracles with light. But he also gets the look of the scientist down, with most of the cast, including the 12-member mixed chorus, and all 12 Childs dancers, dressed in Einstein's trademark baggy pants, short-sleeved white shirts, braces, and sneakers. Kate Moran and Helga Davis, who replace Childs and Sheryl Sutton in the 1976 production and its revivals, will be dressed as Einstein, too. The violinist who "plays" the scientist sitting in a chair on the edge of the stage will be costumed as him, and performed for the first time by a woman: the superb Korean-American virtuosa Jennifer Koh, whose part (think 20th-century Paganini) demands fierce concentration, rhythmic exactitude, and a tone both gritty and lyric. Still, Wilson's "theatre of images" isn't interested in providing a story or plot, much less "answers." The director has no truck with the "social problem" plays of Ibsen and what passes for "realistic" theatre today, and Glass has rightly called opera "a species of poetry."
Wilson's The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin (1973) and The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud (1974) were called "silent operas" even when they used music, and Glass' here, which varies dramatically in temperature and point, is supportive or front-and-center, but never follows or explains the action. What it all "means" is anyone's guess.
Wilson likes to tell the story of how he once found himself sitting next to playwright Arthur Miller at an Einstein performance. "After about 20 minutes he turned to me and said, 'What do you think about this? I don't get it.' And I said, 'I don't get it, either.'" This may sound like an artist evading responsibility for his work. But Glass, who was just awarded Japan's Praemium Imperiale for music, has pointed out how Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson's first opera together Four Saints in Three Acts (1927-34) attempted a similar Einstein thing when they invited the audience to "complete" it. The BAM audience paused hardly a nanosecond after the last note evaporated, and stood up and applauded like welcome thunder as the 65-member cast and crew (this is a very expensive show) and Wilson and Childs in black, Glass in baggy blue jeans and thin tan jacket, took their final curtain calls. And I was in tears.
Einstein on the Beach runs Fri.-Sun., Oct. 26-28, at Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley. Tickets: www.calperformances.org or (510) 642-9988.