Cher Public

Life is like a train

“In my music, there’s not repetition. Something is always going on. It’s a very important point, and each time you use the word ‘repetition’, it enforces an idea that’s not true.”

“It’s a psychological way of listening where you think that you’re in the same place exactly, but moving in order to stay in the same place–it’s like treading water in a swimming pool. […] It’s said, ‘It’s minimalism’. It’s sad. It’s a word that was invented by journalists and used by people trying to make a complicated process more easily understandable. But making it more easily understandable misses a lot of what a piece is about.”

The source of the quote is a 2011 interview with Philip Glass. The interview is reprinted in the 58-page book (text in English, French and German) containing the discs of Opus Arte’s Blu-ray release of Einstein on the Beach, the composer’s 1976 collaboration with director Robert Wilson. Mr. Glass surely knows at this point that some battles are unwinnable.

He can make his case, but in all likelihood he will go down to posterity as a minimalist whose music was full of repetition. My obligation here is to review the first video recording of an opera known to many more people than have seen or heard it, an opera many will write off as minimalist repetition at Meistersinger length (with “no story”), and to try to suggest something of the experience.

This 2012-13 production was supervised by Glass, Wilson and Lucinda Childs (a principal performer in the opera in 1976, its choreographer from 1984). The filming was drawn from two performances before an apparently engaged and enthusiastic audience at Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet in January 2014, halfway through a worldwide tour that concluded in South Korea late the following year.

Einstein on the Beach is not a biographical opera in the traditional sense, not even in the sense that Glass’s later, non-narrative Satyagraha tells the story of Gandhi. Albert Einstein is a mute, ghostly presence on the perimeter, played by a solo violinist (here Antoine Silverman) in gray wig and moustache, a white shirt with sleeves to the elbows, suspenders.

The same clothes, though not the wig and moustache, are worn by many of the onstage performers, who pose, mime, act in a fashion, recite. The text, not subtitled on the Blu-ray (no loss), combines prose, poetry, numbers and solfège syllables. It is credited to the autistic poet Christopher Knowles (a teenager at the time of the work’s composition), actor Samuel M. Johnson and Ms. Childs. There are two formal dance interludes.

Symbols recur throughout the opera’s 264-minute running time: clocks and watches, a compass, a conch, the moon, vehicles of transportation. A steam locomotive enters at the beginning of Act One, and a scene in Act Two takes place on a train car and platform. The inside of a spaceship replaces the train for an iconic tableau near the end, and the last vehicle we see is a bus.

Mr. Glass composed his music while looking at Mr. Wilson’s sketches, and their opera deals with Einstein not on a personal level but in themes of energy, technology, ecology, space and time. The opera assumes and requires no particular knowledge of Einstein on the audience’s part, and it is not principally concerned with imparting such information.

Mr. Glass’s luminous music is avant-garde of the 1970s but spares a few glances at least as far back as the Renaissance. It can sound strange and exotic or rudimentary and primal (as in a lovely passage for male choir in “Knee Play 4”). The six-member Philip Glass Ensemble, splitting up parts for flute, piccolo, bass clarinet, soprano/alto/tenor saxophones, and two synthesizers, is augmented by Mr. Silverman’s violin and a 12-person chorus.

Michael Riesman directs the ensemble. There is nothing especially difficult about Einstein on the Beach for the listener, but one is aware of the stamina and concentration all of the performers had to bring to it, those on the stage as well as those in the orchestra pit.

The tableaux Mr. Wilson creates are cryptic. The scenes of the opera are not stories; they are barely situations. In the second scene of Act One, a judge calls his court to order (there are actually two judges, an adult and a child), but the issues to be litigated are never clarified. A moonlit scene for two people on a train ends with a woman pointing a gun at a man (her lover?); we fade out on his terror and her amusement. The “drama,” like the music, avoids resolution. After an interlude, we return to the courtroom, where some people are sentenced to prison for something.

A woman incessantly repeats a story about being in a “prematurely air-conditioned supermarket,” where she saw bathing caps with Fourth of July plumes. She was not tempted to buy one, but she was reminded she had been avoiding the beach. Repeated texts, some more coherent than others, are given shifting emphases and changing inflections. One repeated spoken text can overlap with another we first heard in an earlier scene, in the opera’s closest parallels to operatic duets and ensembles.

Mr. Wilson’s theatrical hallmarks, which he would later apply to operas of the standard repertory (Lohengrin, Madama Butterfly), are in evidence here: blue backgrounds and white light, very slow movements across the stage. In the second scene of Act Four, for several minutes we see nothing more than a plane of bright white light slowly shifting from horizontal to vertical, as a phrase repeats on the organ. This is followed by one of the musical highlights, a vocalise (marked “Aria”) sung by mezzo Hai-Ting Chinn as the light vanishes.

Einstein on the Beach makes several references to pop-culture artifacts and personalities of the 1970s: the songs “Mr. Bojangles” and “I Feel the Earth Move,” former Beatles John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, teen idol David Cassidy. Retaining rather than updating the temporal references in this 2012-13 production may make the opera seem more of a period piece than it needs to, but it caused me to reflect on the passage of time, something integral to the work itself. Two of those Beatles have left us now, and Mr. Cassidy recently announced he has been diagnosed with dementia.

The opera successfully establishes a timetable of its own. Although it withholds much of what we go to the opera expecting, both in music and in storytelling, it does achieve a cumulative impact. One could not watch any extracted scene or any half hour of it and “have the idea”; it must be taken in whole. During live performances, there are no intervals, and audience members are allowed to come and go as they wish.

My only pause while watching the Blu-ray was for the length of time it took me to change discs. Every time I checked the counter, I was surprised that more time had passed than I had guessed. Right from the prologue/”Knee Play 1″ preceding the first act, 12 minutes felt to me like four.

The easy way out in describing music such as Mr. Glass’s is to speak of being “hypnotized,” “entranced,” “mesmerized.” I never surrendered to such a state. I was conscious of what I was hearing and seeing, and there were parts of the opera I enjoyed more than others (I found Ms. Childs’s choreography for the two dances surprisingly conventional and uninspired). But the four and a half hours passed quickly, and the production exerted a compelling pull in its combinations of music, words and stage pictures.

There is a hint of a cautionary theme in Einstein on the Beach. The fear of nuclear annihilation is lightly touched upon, not with the explicitness of didacticism but evocatively, in imagery and in what follows that imagery. Overpoweringly bright orange lights fade and we close in tranquility. A bus driver recites Mr. Johnson’s poem “Lovers on a Park Bench,” and it is made to sound like wisdom of the ages:

“How much do I love you? Count the stars in the sky. Measure the waters of the oceans with a teaspoon. Number the grains of sand on the sea shore. Impossible, you say. Yes, and it is just as impossible for me to say how much I love you.”

These lovers on the park bench could have existed in the youth of Einstein, or the 1970s, or the 2010s, or at some distant point in the future. There will always be park benches, and there will always be lovers. One hopes.

Mr. Glass recently celebrated his 80th birthday, and Mr. Wilson is 75. They are unlikely to oversee another production of Einstein on the Beach. Whether their opera will outlive them remains an open question, as it was when our Christopher Corwin reviewed a BAM performance from this tour in 2012. The Opus Arte Blu-ray is an easy recommendation for members of the work’s cult following, who waited decades for such a thing and likely ordered it long before this review appeared.

To those coming new to Einstein on the Beach, I would say that television cannot recreate the one-of-a-kind communal experience of seeing it live, but this may be true for every opera. The Blu-ray remains an attractive introduction, a handsomely packaged and artistically worthwhile release that gives a sense of a time of boldness and pioneering spirit in all of the performing arts in America. The children have grown old now, but for a few hours, we can return to a time when they created something new.

  • Lynn Badajoz

    Einstein on the Beach now looks like one of the biggest con jobs ever
    perpetrated in the theatre, a fatuous museum piece that kicks off with the chorus beatifically smiling at the audience like members of a sect.

    Yes, the joke is on us. If it were a real work, it would stand the test of a
    new production rather than being rolled out in its now very wrinkled
    format. Its supporters claim it must have some merit as it is very
    difficult to perform; but chanting a telephone directory on one note is
    equally taxing and just as pointless.

    • rapt

      “If it were a real work…”

      The ontologist speaks!

      • Armerjacquino


        I never cease to be surprised by people’s use of the language of fraud in the arts.

        ‘I know! I’m going to dedicate my life to writing music even though I can’t! That will be worthwhile and fool everyone! Now all I need to do is find someone who has dedicated his life to directing theatre, even though he’s not really a director’

        • PCally

          It’s an especially odd claim when it’s applied to opera. Why would one devote their life to what is a comparatively (Im speaking exclusively in terms of recognition and fame) thankless art form?

    • Greg Freed

      “If it were a real work…” it would have toured the world to full houses and rapturous acclaim. Which happened. Don’t like it if you don’t like it but calling it a con job just makes you sound bitter and narrow-minded.

      • Lynn Badajoz

        I remain adamantly of the view that this opera is flatulently pretentious in its wilful opacity and without aesthetic, intellectual or spiritual substance. It is also asphyxiatingly tedious.

        • PCally

          Well that’s your opinion, quite different than the random rant above about how “the joke is on us etc…” one likes a work or doesn’t but just because they don’t doesn’t mean they were conned. When attending a performance that is literally what happens. You either get something out of what you’ve seen or you don’t.

          Personally I don’t really care for the piece but many people whom I respect and whose opinions I value love it and it remains a very respected piece of work. And at no point have I encountered anyone saying that it’s a masterpiece simply because it’s difficult to put on.

        • Greg Freed

          So I think we have established that you don’t care for it.

  • Camille

    This well be interesting to mio sposo as he saw an early performance of this as well as this latest iteration referred to in 2012 at BAM. So this will provide him food for thought. From a cursory glance at your expressed opinion, he would probably concur with much of what you have to say, from what I recall. The one thing which comes to mind at present Was his assertion it HAS to be seen in the theatre; that at that time it debuted it really had an effect, a child of its time so to speak. Now, it probably would help if you at least remember the seventies.

    Regarding Robert Wilson: i was one of a few freaks who rather enjoyed his Lohengrin, once I was accustomed to it and got over it. The Parsifal, given in L.A. about tn years ago I didn’t care as much for as it seemed like Lohengrin x 2. The one that I really did not care for much was the Butterfly and was glad to see its departure. Imagining his Noh play influences would work in this but they stifled the poor Butterfly, the very lovely and able soprano Verónica Villaroel, the night I heard it. As I’d seen her several times previously I knew what she could do and this direction of the character buried Butterfly way before Pinkerton’s ship re-entered the harbor and it was a lot of work to do.

    • Dare I say I enjoyed his Ring in Paris?

      Also loved every minute of Einstein at the Châtelet. It must have chimed with my now very wrinkled format.

      • Camille

        Mais oui! Of course you may. That is your opinion and one on a subject about which I have none in any case.

        And regarding the video of Ulisse, it helped to demonstrate that he is not totally deficient in voice and seemed to be working out there, therefore your remarks regarding his performance seem quite accurate. Perhaps that acoustic works for him and perhaps your performance went more smoothly or perhaps the video is enhanced. It’s all hard to say. Peut-être.

        • Just for the record, the very best work I remember by Robert Wilson was Les Fables de La Fontaine, the only good thing I ever saw at the Comédie Française, and Die Dreigroschenoper. He has a comic vein after all.

  • Porgy, thank you for this wonderful review. I’m sorry I did not make enough of an effort to see this touring production when it came to Toronto a couple of years ago. I assumed that it is a piece that must be experienced in the theatre and would be difficult on video but you’ve successfully countered that assumption. So, I may yet make up for missing it back in 2014.

    • Giovanni’s Roomba

      I was thrilled to be able to see two of the three Toronto performances. I’ve watched the Théâtre du Châtelet recording a half dozen times or so and it is as good a reproduction of the experience as you could hope for.

  • Alex Baker

    The live revival was an incredible experience, though it would be very unfortunate if people got wrapped up in the idea that it is untouchable because nothing will touch the original production. Speaking of:

    Also, just looked up the Childs’ dance numbers, which are indeed kind of underwhelming on video, though my main memory of these scenes live was the contrast between the very repetitive, chilly choreography and all the dancers being ridiculously drenched with sweat by the end.

  • Pirelli

    “No repetition” is oh-so-faux-clever semantics, and I daresay it’s alternative fact. If he wants to clarify HOW he views his use of such repetition, that’s totally fine. But repetition is repetition.

    That said -- something Glass does do very skillfully is a sort of Escher effect in musical terms. That is, as much as he does use direct repetition, he also likes to slowly transform a phrase or motif little by little -- sometimes rhythmically, sometimes melodically, the same way a design in an Escher drawing transforms bit by bit as you follow it.

    One of my personal favorite uses of this is in the first scene of Satyagraha -- and especially in the choral section near the end of the scene, where the same 4-chord progression, played in 8th note arpeggio groupings in the orchestra, keeps changing as one 8th note is eliminated every few passes. The tiny changes do keep a sense of forward excitement in the music (as the momentum seems to “tighten”), and it’s also fun to trace the groupings mathematically as they change.

    But for Glass to try to pull a statement like “there’s no repetition in my music” -- well, that’s his smug little game he thinks he can play with us. And it’s ridiculous.