"The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true emotion and true science."
- Albert Einstein
The world was a different place in 1976. Jimmy Carter was elected president. The Viking I landed on Mars. And Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak had just produced the first usable personal computer. It was a world devoid of digital distractions, where phones were tied to a cord, mail came with stamps affixed, and "apps" were something you ate before dinner.
In the insular world of opera, Patrice Chareau mounted his controversial staging of Wagner's Ring at the Bayreuth Festival, on the 100th anniversary of Wagner's original production. About 700 miles to the southwest, however, a new opera by Americans Robert Wilson (director/set designer), Philip Glass (composer), and Lucinda Childs (performer/choreographer) premiered at the Avignon Festival that made Chereau's Ring look like La Boheme.
It was called Einstein on the Beach, and it was unlike anything that had ever been seen in an opera house. The central characters were all dancers, with spaceships and glass coffins flying overhead. A courtroom was dominated by a bed that made it appear like a mental institution. There was no discernible plot, and instead of heroes or heroines, there were two "Featured Performers": androgynous women who communicated via gestures and a repetitive, nonsensical text written by an autistic16-year-old. And, the "orchestra" consisted of two Farfisa organs (one played by Glass) and a handful of wind instruments. It was, as one reviewer put it, "an anthology of the arts."
Einstein toured throughout Europe that summer, creating a sensation and catapulting its creators to fame, if not fortune. (Glass drove a cab to make ends meet.) In November, it was performed in the U.S. for the first time, selling out two consecutive Sundays at the Met Opera (they rented the house). It was revived at BAM in 1984, then again in 1992, after which it seemed destined to the dustheap of experimental curiosity and academic—if not actual—admiration.
Then in 2007, incoming New York City Opera director Gerard Mortier announced plans to revive Einstein to open the 2009-10 season. Those plans fell apart when Mortier quit, but last year the independent production company Pomegranate Arts stepped in, reuniting Wilson, Glass, and Childs with the intent of returning Einstein to the stage. After months of rehearsals, an initial performance was mounted at the University of Michigan this past January, followed by a European tour. Aside from some advancements in lighting and stage technology, nothing was altered from the original production.
Last weekend, Einstein returned to New York for the first time in 20 years, filling BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House with rapt admirers and curiosity seekers from across the age and artistic spectrum. I went to Saturday night's performance, and could immediately grasp the appeal of this groundbreaking opera, with its striking imagery and infectious harmonies, accompanied by a chorus beautifully singing solfège. Still, after more than four hours of uninterrupted music, it was clear that this is an opera better felt than understood.
"I don't think it's a responsibility for the artist to necessarily understand what it is that he does," Wilson says in this video from 1984.
To be honest, there is some irritating shit in Einstein. The dancers were cold and robotic, uniformly dressed in the same white shirt and overalls that Einstein wore. The Featured Performers indulged in gestures that were neither explained nor consistent. Even Glass' music grated, frequently stuck on repeat like a scratched record (for those who still remember record players). This is early-career work, not the world-class stagecraft for which Glass, Wilson, and Childs would later become renowned. Which begs the question: Would we be as accepting of Einstein if it was a new work? Do we tolerate mediocrity based solely on reputation, or how long it's managed to hang around? That's not to take anything away from the performances, which were impressive both in terms of artistry and adherence to Wilson and Glass' formalist vision. Clearly, these dancers, singers, and musicians all put in countless hours of preparation to make Einstein look, sound, and feel exactly as it first did 36 years ago.
Topping the list of performers was Kate Moran, taking on the role of Featured Performer previously inhabited by Ms. Childs. A skilled actress with credits in both avant-garde and traditional theater, she burned beneath her cool surface, investing her lines with a Laurie Anderson-like evenness that was simultaneously comforting and eerie. Helga Davis, the other Featured Performer, was a more muted presence, looking like a less-flamboyant version of Grace Jones.
The violinist Jennifer Koh played the title role of Einstein—by which I mean she sat on the stage apron in a frizzy white wig, playing repeating figures while remaining silent. (Antoine Silverman takes over the role in the back half of the BAM run.) Andrew Sterman delivered an extended saxophone solo, presumably improvised, during the "Building" scene in Act IV, and soprano Hai-Ting Chinn sang the "Bed" scene solo with beauty and clarity.
Those who go to Einstein should be forewarned: there is no intermission. But, you are permitted to come and go freely throughout, and if my experience is any indication, you're not likely to miss anything. About three hours into the performance, during the second "Field" dance in Act III, I made my way out to the lobby for a much-needed beer. When I returned 20 minutes later, the cast was still dancing to the same repetitive theme, slightly varied.
Whatever you do, don't leave before the end. If you do, you will miss one of the most magical moments in all of opera: the last of the five "Knee Plays" which join together Einstein's expository scenes. Glass starts by giving Einstein a simple Bach-like figure to play on the violin, soon joined by the chorus singing a series of tender triads, with the organs playing a low drone underneath. Then, an elderly bus driver (Charles Williams) emerges from the wings to speak in stilted English of two young lovers sitting on a park bench, employing an endless string of metaphors to express their boundless love for each other. ("My love for you is higher than the heavens, deeper than Hades, and broader than the Earth.") Off to the side, the Featured Performers sit still on a bench, staring off into space as the music builds and shows just the slightest hint of thaw before the lights suddenly extinguish. It was at once haunting, unnerving, and incredibly moving—even if I didn't know exactly what had just happened.
Einstein runs at BAM through Sunday; limited tickets available at the BAM box office or online.
More pics on the photo page.