Einstein on the Beach
When Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach premiered in 1976, in Avignon then New York, it was rapturously received. David Byrne is said to have talked of nothing else for weeks. One critic, writing in the Soho Weekly News, called it ‘more than a masterpiece, more than total-theatre’ – the era’s first complete ‘art statement’. But the production cost almost $1 million and, according to Will Hermes’s 2011 history of the period, the experimental opera lost close to $100,000. Glass went back to driving a cab. Soon after, as the story goes, one of his customers said, ‘Young man, do you realize you have the same name as a very famous composer?’
Excerpt from Absolute Wilson, a documentary about Robert Wilson by Katharina Otto-Bernstein
Almost 40 years on, Glass is pretty much the most famous composer in the world. But operas rarely break even, and the scale of Einstein on the Beach – not to mention the small matter of its five-hour length – means that it continues to be wildly expensive to stage. In 2009, a production was planned for Lincoln Center in New York, and Glass noted that it would probably be ‘the last revival of our lifetimes’ (it was scrapped because of spiralling costs). So there was a palpable sense of excitement in the air at the Barbican, when I went to see Einstein on the Beach earlier this week. This was not only its UK premiere, it was the first time it had been performed in 20 years. The ten-day run at the Barbican finishes this weekend, after which it tours to Toronto, Brooklyn, Berkeley, Mexico City, Amsterdam and Hong Kong.
Philip Glass and Robert Wilson (1976)
Although it’s usually referred to as an opera, Einstein on the Beach is much closer to something like Meredith Monk’s experimental work Quarry – which also premiered in 1976 – than it is to John Adams’s Doctor Atomic (2005), which deals in a very different way with the Manhattan Project. Wilson himself has said that he only calls it an opera ‘because it means opus, a work. And I still think that’s the best way to describe it.’ It’s usually considered the first in Glass’s ‘Portrait Trilogy’, though it is considerably longer and more abstract than what followed, and a world away from the composer’s Oscar-winning film scores of recent years.
Unlike most operas, it doesn’t have a literary or historic source. Glass instead developed scenes from drawings that Wilson had made, which were then worked up into a series of sets. There’s little in the way of direct biographical correspondence with the father of modern physics’ life – in fact, Einstein was only decided upon as a subject after Chaplin, Hitler and Gandhi had all been rejected (the latter would be the central character in Glass’s next opera, Satyagraha, 1979). It’s concerned more with the popular or iconic image of a prominent 20th-century figure, with how the idea of Einstein (not just his ideas) permeates culture more generally. Wilson calls it a ‘poetical interpretation of this man’, rather than a dramatization of his life. Much of the libretto is by Christopher Knowles, a poet and painter who was only 13 when he first met Wilson; they began working together on Einstein a year later, despite (or perhaps because of?) Knowles having little idea who Einstein was.
As with a performance of, say, Steve Reich’s early work, it can be disconcerting to see how the essentially anti-academic music of the 1960s and ’70s downtown scene – a time of DIY ethics and alternative spaces – has become a new kind of classicism. While it’s no big claim to say that experimentation inevitably acquires the patina of respectability, it’s interesting to note what this does to audience expectations. Glass once said that, ‘If you go to Einstein on the Beach expecting Oklahoma!, you’re going to be pretty disappointed’, and I’m going to bet that no one spending upwards of £70 on a ticket to see Einstein these days is thinking they’re going to see Oklahoma!. So the 270-minute running time (with no intervals!) doesn’t present the same provocation to the audience as it might have done in 1976: in 2012, the experience is part of what they’re paying for.
Short film produced by the Barbican, London
The work comprises nine long scenes, between which are entr’actes (Glass calls them ‘Knee Plays’) that allow for changes to Wilson’s vast sets. Each of these scenes is around 15–25 minutes long, and cycle through three sets or zones – ‘Train’, ‘Trial’ and ‘Field/Spaceship’ – that allude somehow to Einstein’s hypotheses about his theory of relativity and unified field theory. A dishevelled-looking Einstein character, with bushy white hair and moustache, sits periodically on the side of the stage, playing the violin. Gradually, the accretive effect of these non-narrative repetitions pushes towards a kind of legibility, as the action returns again and again to a series of court-room scenes, jails and various modes of transportation. As Wilson has said, Einstein on the Beach is autodidactic rather than narrative theatre – it teaches you how to watch it. A day or two after I saw it, trying to absorb the images, the repetitions, the countless counting, and I feel like I’m still being taught.