Einstein on the Beach: A Triumvirate of Masterminds

A scene from "Einstein on the Beach" | Photo: Lucie Jansch.

At last: "Einstein on the Beach," the opera that is not really an opera -- nor is it really about the physicist Albert Einstein -- who, by the way, is never seen at the beach and is portrayed by, among others, the fiddle-playing Jennifer Koh -- arrives at the Music Center courtesy of Los Angeles Opera and the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA (CAP UCLA).

Yes, some 37 years after the four-and-a-half hour plus spectacle was first mounted, this third revival of the Robert Wilson/Philip Glass/Lucinda Childs epic, seems to be the charm for Angelenos. It's also the first time that the work has ever been presented as part of a U.S. opera company's season, with the October 11-13 performances the last stop of the production's North American tour. (Sadly, it will also be the last time these three creative giants will join forces on the historic piece.)

So what's all the fuss about this uncategorizable work that has, nevertheless, altered the course of operatic history, becoming the most influential piece of theater in the past five decades. With Glass' repetitive, trance-inducing score, Wilson's legendarily lush staging and sublime lighting and Childs' breathtaking choreography (the original production featured Childs contributing moves and spoken texts to Andrew deGroat's choreography), "Einstein" has certainly proven to be, what one critic called, "addictive."

Its beginnings, however, were not so auspicious. Indeed, "Einstein" was commissioned by Michel Guy and the Avignon Festival, where its first five performances were presented in 1976 -- and where Wilson, enigmatically, fielded questions at a press conference by responding with bird squawks. (How utterly Wilsonian!) From the south of France it then went on a six-city European tour, before arriving in all its glory at the Metropolitan Opera House for two sold-out nights in November.

That so-called glory, however, was not prescience on the Met's part: No, it seems that Wilson and Glass had merely rented the 3,800-seat house for two Sunday nights, when the theater would normally have been dark. But among the throngs of "downtown" listeners, there were also critics.

The New York Times' Clive Barnes proclaimed the opera, "scarcely Puccini, but I have rarely heard a first-night audience respond so vociferously at the Metropolitan Opera House as for this bizarre, occasionally boring, yet always intermittently beautiful theater piece. You will never forget it, even if you hate it. Which is a most rare attribute to a work of art. Nowadays."

A scene from "Einstein on the Beach" | Photo: Lucie Jansch
A scene from "Einstein on the Beach" | Photo: Lucie Jansch

Notoriety is one thing, debt is another, as Wilson and Glass lost a pile of money on their efforts, with the composer actually going back to, well, driving a cab not long after taking his bows at the Met.

But, all things being relative (puns intended), the "Einstein" creators would soon be validated, their careers soaring. Glass, now 76, would be commissioned to write numerous operas, beginning with "Satyagraha" in 1979, "Akhnaten" in 1983 and "The Voyage," from 2006, the most expensive commission in the history of the Met. As for Glass' most recent operatic endeavor, "The Perfect American," which explores the final days in the life of Walt Disney, it premiered in January at Madrid's Teatro Real.

Glass has also written numerous movie scores, three of which have been Oscar-nominated, including "Kundun" (1997) and "The Hours" (2002), with "Koyaanisqatsi," the 1983 Godfrey Reggio film set to his music (and performed by the Philip Glass Ensemble), may be the most radical and influential marriage of sound and visuals since "Fantasia."

If Glass has become the most prolific and popular of all contemporary composers, Waco-born Robert Wilson, on the other hand, may be more of an acquired taste. It was, after all, the critic John Simon, who once referred to a Wilson work as a "gay pothead bad joke." His austere style, glacial movement vocabulary, and often extreme scale in dealing with space and time, either fanatically attract or completely repel audiences, meaning one cannot be blasé when it comes to Wilson. Now 72, Wilson is also known for more "conventional" opera stagings, including "Madame Butterfly" (L.A. Opera), "Lohengrin" (the Met) and a "Ring" Cycle for Zürich Opera and Paris' Théâtre du Châtelet.

A scene from "Einstein on the Beach" | Photo: Lucie Jansch
A scene from "Einstein on the Beach" | Photo: Lucie Jansch

Wilson's works prior to "Einstein" include the seven-hour, silent piece, "Deafman Glance," and "KA MOUNTain and GUARDenia Terrace" (1972), a seven-day performance held on a mountaintop in Iran. The following year, the Texan mounted a 12-hour work, "The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin," which, all things being, ahem, relative, might have seemed like a one-act.

It's no surprise, then, that Wilson, who also acts, designs furniture, makes video art and oversees his Long Island Watermill Center, was the perfect match for Glass's score. And that score - a wonder in 1976 -- is still a revelation today: Michael Riesman once again leads the Philip Glass Ensemble (two electric keyboards, synthesizers, three wind instruments and a wordless solo soprano), as well as a chorus, with an autistic teen, Christopher Knowles, having been the source of the texts that make sense - or not - an occasional solfège syllable (do, la, sol) thrown in for good measure.

As to the dance element, when Glass insisted on better singers -- a notion that also meant better dancers -- Lucinda Childs was asked to choreograph the first revival (1984), which included her re-making two extended ballet sequences, "The Field Dances." Childs' vocabulary -- the zenith of terpsichorean minimalism -- is a better fit with the opera's music and imagery, where patterns trump content.

Okay, so what are some of these now iconic, Einstein-inspired images? With five episodes -- entr'actes or "Knee Plays," as Wilson calls them -- punctuating major scenes of the opera's four acts, the visuals span Einstein's life, his visage seemingly everywhere. From steam engines (the scientist loved model trains) to space travel -- the tableaux unfurl in a hallucinogenic, dream-like fashion.

A scene from "Einstein on the Beach" | Photo: Lucie Jansch
A scene from "Einstein on the Beach" | Photo: Lucie Jansch

There are also two trial scenes -- with beds, the second of which features a "witness" who eventually turns into a weapon-wielding -- gulp -- Patty Hearst, whose real-life trial (kidnapped heiress-turned-fugitive-bank robber) was taking place during the creation of "Einstein."

And what Einstein-related work would be complete without an apocalypse of sorts? The opera's final scene, "Spaceship," brings us inside the vehicle that previously had cruised above the action, the accompanying music a fierce-driving series of keyboard and woodwind blasts, Wilson's indelible whirling lights seared onto our collective brains. This stunningly imagistic work validates critic Barnes' original assessment, and is the reason why many of us are drawn to the theater.

It certainly is for Kristy Edmunds, currently in her second season as executive and artistic director of CAP UCLA, who first saw "Einstein" in 1984, during its first revival.

"I was very, very young," recalls Edmunds, "and it was a game-changer in anything I could comprehend -- theater, music dance -- any of it. I didn't see the second revival in the 90's, but I saw it last year at Berkeley. I've been involved in this round, which will be the final chapter, and last time these principal artists will pull this together. It's been a long journey."

Edmunds, who has a longstanding relationship with Glass, says she was in her 20's and running a small program at Portland Institute of Contemporary Arts, when she first presented Glass's work in 1995.

"The fact that he believed in something that was happening in Portland through PICA, is completely in character with how he is artistically and as a man, a generous one. Later I met Bob [Wilson] and similarly presented a number of his projects."

A scene from "Einstein on the Beach" | Photo: Lucie Jansch
A scene from "Einstein on the Beach" | Photo: Lucie Jansch

Edmunds, who also headed Australia's Melbourne Festival and New York's Park Avenue Armory, refutes the notion that "Einstein," a product of the '70's, might feel dated.

"As with many great works, the time period in which they were first created, usually an audience, even an art world, doesn't quite know what to do with something that is so forward looking. When it sustains over time and distance, it's not dated, but I think we, as audience and art participants -- we've evolved. When I look at the work now, the audience has the capacity to catch up on how forward looking and extraordinary its original gesture was."

Edmunds makes an analogy to a painting from the 1700's. "Twenty people may have seen it then, but it has the capacity to stay the test of time and be a masterwork. The painting hasn't changed, but we have -- culture has."

A major asset to L.A.'s arts community, Edmunds understands the struggles creators face today. When recalling that Glass and Wilson had actually rented the Met to stage "Einstein," she responds knowingly: "First of all, there's the ability to get someone in a mega-institution to even return your phone calls; then, there's finding a hole in the calendar. Would you even have that equivalent human being in an institution today?

"What I love about it -- Bob and Phil's art -- and their lives," adds Edmunds, "depended on their ability to make art and the art depended on their ability to live. It was the same thing. You're in pursuit of living your life and that's what it required."

A scene from "Einstein on the Beach" | Photo: Lucie Jansch
A scene from "Einstein on the Beach" | Photo: Lucie Jansch

With "Einstein," assuming mythic proportions, Edmunds believes that it took a visual world that was both highly refined and explosive, to even allow a concept of opera to permeate the sensibility of artists.

She explains: "Instead of working on the stylistic outlying realm of the Western classical canon in opera, "Einstein" allowed a very different aesthetic and set of participants in opera to even conceive of it. It allowed a robust group of diverse artists to fall in love with an art form they hadn't paid attention to. And when they fall in love with things, they start tackling it very differently.

"When I look at this span between 1976 and now," continues Edmunds, "the three of them have been able to watch the arrival of a culture come to that work, which, of course, none of them would say, because they're not egoists.

"But it did something for theater, for composers and for contemporary dance as well. Lucinda's participation -- it's a fully flowing choreography, not a how-do-you- involve-the-cast-of-an-opera to just move on the stage. It's incorporating an entire, very sophisticated presence of the art form unto itself."

And while some audiences have found "Einstein" incomprehensible, interminable, even, Edmunds adamantly refutes that. "That concept sounds like a press quote from the '70's or '80's. When I first presented and worked with the late great postmodern choreographer, Merce Cunningham, I was reading a quote that said, 'I would rather watch the asphalt dry on the side of a road than sit through a Merce Cunningham choreography again. Ever.' However," adds Edmunds, "some 20 years later we catch up. And so do these ideas."

That this will be the last time the "Einstein" triumvirate will work on the production together strikes an emotional chord with Edmunds, who will moderate a discussion with the trio on October 12 at Royce Hall. (Wilson will also be presenting John Cage's "Lecture on Nothing," October 15, as part of the fellowships/residencies Edmunds inaugurated last year.)

A scene from "Einstein on the Beach" | Photo: Lesley Leslie-Spinks
A scene from "Einstein on the Beach" | Photo: Lesley Leslie-Spinks

"They'll talk about not only the making of "Einstein" - what was going on with them at the time -- and their reflections along with this remount, but what has come out of it. These are people who do not rest," notes Edmunds. "That's what I love about this remount. Lucinda was able to reconstitute a dance company for the opera, and in so doing, she's also creating new work that continues to go on. Bob is prolific beyond, and the same with Phil. Even the completion of the piano etudes that we'll have here next May, extends more than 20 years from when Phil created the first one to finishing the final four.

"I'm so grateful that "Einstein on the Beach" has had a chance to move from iconic mythology, like Woodstock -- how many people actually saw it -- but it's penetrated into different generations. It is a gift of astonishment, done through the integrity of vision of some remarkable and generous artists."

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