"Building" from Einstein on the Beach (photo credit: Lucie Jansch)
Glass, Wilson, Childs, Luminato = event
by Axel Van Chee
Einstein on the Beach, an opera composed by Philip Glass, directed by Robert Wilson, and choreographed by Lucinda Childs was something of a holy grail back when I was at music school: everyone talked about it but no one had seen it, except for the few professors who happened to be at the right place, at the right time, and also of a certain age. It is known to be a landmark work that changed, and extended our understanding of not just music, but the art of theatre since the work's premier in 1976. And that, I think, this is what makes the recreation at Sony Center as part of the Luminato Festival such an extraordinary event: what the audience is witnessing is not something new, but a seminal work that, like the atomic bomb (borrowing a page from Einstein), transformed the world of the performance arts.
this was all new when it premiered, it was revolution
And it is also because of its significance in the history of art that I find it difficult to critique
this work in any meaningful way. Does the work feel like a period piece? Yes it does. From its futuristic visuals circa 1970s, to the score itself - which is no longer a new sound - the opera feels every bit like the beast of its time. But keep in mind that this was all new when it premiered, it was revolution.
For those who do not know anything about the opera, aside from its historic importance, Einstein on the Beach is also very long (just a bit over 4 hours), has no intermission (you are allowed to go in and out as you please), and more importantly, it has no plot. And it really isn’t an opera in the conventional sense, it would be like calling an octopus a fish because it lives in the water. I went to see it out of morbid curiosity; after all, how can I pass on an opportunity to see something that I have known for so long and dreaded so much? By the end of the night, however, at the risk of being crucified later for saying this, Einstein on the Beach is much more than any operas I have seen; it is an immersive experience.
The show unfolds at a snail’s pace, allowing the audience plenty of time to absorb and draw their own conclusions.
And I find myself asking why I am making such a statement: is it because I recognized myself and others in Wilson’s characters on stage, repeating the same abstracted gestures over and over again? Is is because I was bombarded with Glass’s calculated, repetitive and hypnotic rhythms? Is it because I was overwhelmed by Childs’s spinning and trance-inducing, and seemingly endless choreography? Is it because the piece had no plot and I was obliged to decode constantly, finally giving up and letting the whole thing wash over me during the performance? I think the answer is all of the above. The show unfolds at a snail’s pace, allowing the audience plenty of time to absorb and draw their own conclusions. I don’t think I have felt this abused in a performance in a very long time, except this is actually surprisingly refreshing and pleasant.
On the opening night, there a was virtuosic saxophone solo by Andrew Sterman during the building scene, and Jennifer Koh played a frenzy of a violin as Einstein throughout the performance. The rest of the performers displayed astonishing feats of precision, discipline and unbelievable stamina, and they all very much deserved the standing ovation that they received. Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, and Lucinda Childs also took to the stage and received the warmest congratulations from the enthusiastic crowd. The reasons for the cheers may have been different for everyone, but one thing was certain: the loudest kudos were for the three titans’ contribution to the advancement of arts, and that certainly is no mean accomplishment.
Oh, and you might find yourself mumbling 1, 2, 3, 4 on your way home, or indeed, the rest of the day.
Einstein on the Beach continues to June 10