Lessons From 'Einstein'

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Until yesterday, it had been 20 years since I last saw the landmark opera Einstein On The Beach by composer Philip Glass and director Robert Wilson.  It had been that long because 1992 was the last time the work had been staged anywhere. EOTB, which premiered in 1976, is a mammoth undertaking: It's a four-and-a-half hour meditation on time and the anxiety of the nuclear age, requiring multiple sets, a company of musicians, dancers, actors, and singers -- almost all of whom do more than one of these things -- and an audience willing to suspend its belief in what we've been told the word "opera" means. 

The current revival of Einstein is brilliant and the chorus is truly astonishing. Lucinda Childs' choreography, which was done for the first revival in 1984, looks as good as ever. And the sets and lighting are true to what I remember but with several new touches. Some of the new elements are simply the result of advances in stagecraft, yet this production also finds a layer of humor that I don't recall seeing before. It’s almost as if Robert Wilson, the designer and director of the work, is still figuring out what the piece is going to be when it grows up. 

This brings me to the big question surrounding this touring production of Einstein. The production heads to Berkeley, Calif., for shows from October 26 through 28, before heading to Mexico City, Amsterdam, and Hong Kong, and then, what?  The work has been staged only three times before, in 1976, 1984 and 1992. Realistically, this may be the last time we see Einstein with its original creators still around and involved in the production. The Philip Glass Ensemble is the only band to have ever played the piece.

But what happens after that? When Einstein grows up, will it turn out to be a work that was specific to its time and its creative team? Will it prove to be a versatile repertory work, where different directors can completely change the look and feel of the work, while still somehow keeping the core of the piece? 

Einstein is one of those outbursts of art, like Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring, that you can point to and say, "Everything changed after that." It exploded our definition of the term "opera," and offered a major alliance between the worlds of abstract visual art, modern dance, and music. And like many of my favorite songs, or poems, it means something -- but it's up to you to decide what.  I've decided it is a series of images from a dark night of the soul, the tortured dreams of a man who is trying to reconcile his desire to have done good for humanity with the terrible power he has unleashed.  And that it is one of the singular masterworks of the 20th century. And that it would be just as great if it were three hours long instead of four-and-a-half.

Somehow, 36 years later, Einstein On The Beach does not look or sound dated. Two generations of musicians have grown up with that sound in their ears, so the music seems likely to outlive it composer. The sets and the design, which seem specific to Robert Wilson, have evolved over the three revivals, suggesting that the visual portion of EOTB is not fixed in amber either. I have no idea what a revival in another 36 years might look like, but I certainly hope to have the chance to find out. 

Are there works that you just can’t imagine without the original creators? Leave a comment.