“Is a work an opera simply because its creators choose to call it one?” That was just one of the questions swirling around in my mind as I experienced the revival of Einstein on the Beach at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Sunday. This seminal 1976 meditation on the great physicist by Robert Wilson and Philip Glass provides audiences with plenty to mull over during its nearly four-and-a-half hour intermissionless running time. For me, seeing it again for the first time since 1984 provoked mixed feelings.  

Almost every bit of journalism devoted to this new production (supervised by Wilson, Glass and choreographer Lucinda Childs) which premiered in Montpellier in March has repeated the truism that even though it’s often cited as one of the 20th century’s most important works, Einstein has been more often discussed and listened to (via two complete-ish recordings) than actually seen. Last staged here two decades ago, the work’s 2012-13 tour includes the first-ever performances in the UK, Canada, Mexico and on the west coast of the US where it arrives next month in Berkeley.

However, this is its fourth engagement in New York City, appropriate since Wilson and Glass are two of the most successful artists to emerge from the “downtown scene” which flourished during the 1960s and 1970s. After its first performance at the Avignon Festival on July 25, 1976, Einstein’s outsized ambitions were fully realized at its US premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House that November. Today it’s impossible to imagine that negotiations to rent the MET for those two Sunday shows began until only after Einstein’s premiere just four months earlier.

However, despite those legendary Met shows following a rapturously received European tour, the work lay unperformed for another eight years until BAM’s 1984 revival (which incorporated the Childs choreography for the first time), but a planned tour never happened until a second BAM revival in 1992.  I was lucky enough to see Einstein during a visit to New York City in December 1984, and although it was over half a lifetime ago, I remember it as one of the most transforming events I’ve ever attended.

Before then, my theater-going tastes could have been described as pretty conservative—operas at the MET, Broadway or off-Broadway shows. But Einstein opened my eyes to a new world of performance that I had never before experienced. I’d previously heard (and liked) some of Philip Glass’s music on the radio, but my immediate electric response to Einstein sprang mostly from Wilson’s contribution—beautiful, mysterious, irrational, numbingly slow yet hypnotically compelling.

Even though audience members were invited to come and go throughout the long show—neither I nor the friend with whom I attended left our seats even once. Perhaps Wilson’s theater dovetailed with the graduate work I was doing at the time where conventional expectations of narrative and character were being subverted by the vogue for deconstructing the words on the page in order to discover new worlds beneath.

After that transformative first visit, I often returned to BAM and sought out other challenging performances at venues I’d never been to before: La Mama ETC, the Kitchen, and the Performing Garage, among others. And I made a special effort to see whatever Wilson works I could including his production of Gluck’s Alceste at the Lyric Opera of Chicago for Jessye Norman (a frequent collaborator), as well as his other major collaboration with Glass, Act V of Wilson’s ambitious the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down, a day-long “opera” planned for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics but one which was never mounted in its entirety. However, few, beyond his version of Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine at NYU, approached the intense frisson of that first Einstein.

Although I was also intrigued then by Einstein’s approach to dramatic biography which evokes its subject poetically rather than historically, I now wonder about Wilson and Glass’s contention that that the more one knows about Einstein the more one would be able to draw from their work.

I think it’s entirely possible to know little or nothing about Albert Einstein and still be bewitched by the piece, and I suspect that a 2012 audience brings far less Einstein-knowledge to the performance than those in 1976, just twenty-one years after Einstein’s death. In addition, the work is generally so oblique that it’s hard to imagine what a comprehensive knowledge of Einstein could add.

In 1984 I had only the most cursory knowledge of Einstein and had not lived through the dropping of the atomic bombs nor the Cold War panic of the early 50s, yet I found the performance enthralling. I don’t even remember thinking that work had much to do with Einstein at all, other than noting that the occasional on-stage violinist made up to resemble the elderly scientist—a conceit made more than a little disconcerting in Sunday’s performance when Einstein was the female, Korean-American virtuoso Jennifer Koh.

The work’s texts were written by neither Wilson nor Glass and contain no overt references to Einstein at all: they come primarily from the autistic poet Christopher Knowles (another long-time collaborator of Wilson’s) and the late Samuel M. Johnson, an African-American actor who played the parts of the Judge and the Bus-Driver in the original Einstein.

Knowles’s fragmented texts make little sense even when they’re audible which they usually aren’t. And I’m baffled as to how they relate to Einstein, it at all. Yet apparently Einstein once said about the most beautiful experiences emanate from the mysterious, so perhaps for Wilson, that’s enough reason to include these frequently incomprehensible texts.

But I do think they add to the sense that Einstein actually has less to do with the dead scientist (and the post-apocalyptic novel and film On the Beach from which I presume the remainder of the title was taken) than Wilson’s life-long visual and linguistic preoccupations. Hilton Als, in a recent piece in The New Yorker, posits that Einstein is “an opera about broken speech, utterances that falter.”

Unfortunately over the years I have become increasingly disenchanted with Wilson’s work which seems to apply the same old tricks (blank blue backgrounds, harsh white make-up, highly stylized lighting, glacial stage-crossing, etc.) to virtually any work that crosses his path, from Verdi’s Aida to Wagner’s Lohengrin to an evening of Shakespeare’s sonnets. It does seem though that works that Wilson has had a hand in creating work best.

If you already loathe Glass, Einstein won’t change your mind. As a moderate Glass fan, I wouldn’t say that this work contains his best music and there are many places where less would be more—some of the repetitions just go on forever. For example, a ten-minute organ repeating a single phrase is accompanied by one of Wilson’s least impressive tableaux: a 20-foot wide plane of white light resting on the floor slowly rises to the perpendicular.  However, a lovely, mysterious wordless vocalise follows as the light disappears above the stage, beautifully sung by mezzo Hai-Ting Chinn.

The throbbing music for the two long dance sequences is particularly thrilling and one can see why so many choreographers are drawn to Glass. Unfortunately, Childs’s bland, repetitive (or is that the point?) dances don’t really rise to the occasion. Jerome Robbins and Twyla Tharp have done better by Glass.

It’s been said that Einstein forms part of an early Glass trilogy, joined by Satyagraha (1979) and Akhnaten (1983), both of which I prefer musically to Einstein. While I’ve never seen the latter, Satyagraha is a more effective theater work, a real opera—perhaps because it’s free of the Wilsonian aesthetic—focusing on Gandhi and his gospel of non-violence, while still abiding by Glass’s preference that an audience respond intellectually rather than emotionally to the theater experience—his abhorrence for “character identification” clearly has its roots in the abstraction of Einstein—yet this is perhaps one reason that in 2012 it failed to exert its previous spell—there’s just no emotional pull to it at all.

As to that original conundrum: is Einstein an opera? I’m not so sure. In the fascinating documentary done at the time of the 1984 revival, Wilson argues that since it’s not a play or a dance or a photograph, he called it “opera” from “opus” meaning “work.” He goes on to say that it follows other operatic conventions, such as being performed within a proscenium arch, having singers and a chorus, placing the orchestra in a pit, etc.

But there are even more reasons why it could be argued Einstein is not an opera: it’s non-narrative, it’s about an idea (supposedly) and has no plot or even any dramatic action—it’s difficult to figure out what is going on during the so-called “trial,” for example. There are no characters in any real sense, and only rarely do the figures on stage interact with each other at all. The only sung solo is that previously mentioned vocalise which emerges from the pit.

If anything, Einstein might be seen as an “anti-opera” particularly in a “love duet” that seems to parody those in a conventional opera. Beneath a sliver of a moon, a woman in a white gown and a man in a tuxedo are seen through the back windows of the caboose at the back of a train, presumably the one that enters during first act. Gradually each opens the door and comes out onto the small platform at back of the train while singing a duet, its text either numbers or solfège.

The pair never looks at or touches each other. By the time the moon is full, they have each returned through the doors to the back of train where the woman points a gun to which the man reacts with exaggerated alarm and the scene ends with the woman breaking out in an outrageously large smile (to general guffaws from the audience).

If Einstein isn’t an opera, then what is it? I’m not sure there’s an easy answer—perhaps simply “performance art?” Einstein remains a sui generis work—it’s hard to think of other  works influenced by its reach, its obscurity, its demands on the audience that have even begun to capture the public imagination in the same way that it has.

Just five more performances of Einstein remain at BAM, and the consensus is that this tour is probably the final time its creators will oversee it. Is Einstein even possible in a production not by Wilson? Apparently the German director Achim Freyer attempted a version in the late 1980s in Stuttgart and it was generally considered a failure. Can Einstein outlive its authors? That is another very interesting question!

It remains only to salute the absolutely heroic performers—actors, singers, dancers, musicians, even stagehands– whose devotion and stamina throughout the long performance was truly astonishing. For those who want more (or who can’t get into the five final sold-out performances this week), the Morgan Library in New York City has mounted an interesting exhibition (running through November 4) that includes Glass’s manuscript score, many drawings by Wilson, and performance footage tracing the work’s genesis.