Einstein on the Beach (1976) is the groundbreaking collaboration of three New York artists in full career stride: director/visual artist Robert Wilson, composer/musician Philip Glass and choreographer/dancer Lucinda Childs. It’s been hailed as one of the most significant artistic achievements of the 20th century. LA Opera’s website touted the most recent production with “Einstein on the Beach breaks all rules of conventional opera.” Or does it? In a video interview the year previous, Glass was asked to describe the opera then being prepared for its 2012 restaging and subsequent tour. “We’re talking about the elements of movement, image, text and music,” replied Glass. “…that’s all there is.…Opera’s the only [theatrical] form that uses all four consistently.”
Einstein employs all those elements in addition to clocking in at a respectably opera-length four and a half hours, certainly qualifying in scope and scale. Its resolutely non-narrative structure plus its highly repetitive and tonal minimalist score however did pose a bracing challenge to general opera audiences of the 1970s. And Glass’ interpretation of the non-plot aesthetic of Einstein is clearly articulated in the libretto. Singers recite numbers, solfège syllables and short sections of poetry rather than lyrics employed in the service of advancing the story as in conventional opera. This was then a startling innovation, and it remains one still today to a degree.
If there is no story, then what’s the work about? Wilson’s series of powerful recurrent stage images drawn from the famous physicist Albert Einstein’s life serve as the work’s frame. The dramatic device is imaginatively underpinned by Glass’ composition for soloists, chorus and his instrumental ensemble. It’s further explored by the masterfully conceived and movingly performed modern dance sequences choreographed by Childs.
This new DVD release accurately reflects the superb 2012 production I saw at Toronto’s Luminato that same year. Highlights of that performance included violin virtuoso Jennifer Koh made up to resemble Einstein – a lifelong amateur violinist – and the impressively precise chorus masterfully conducted by the veteran Glass Ensemble member Michael Riesman. David Cromwell’s improvised soulful modal jazzy saxophone solo is a standout on the DVD, as is the reflective aria in the Bed scene, both in Act IV.
In the final scene a bus driver tenderly retells one of the oldest of stories, that of the wondrous beauty and boundlessness of romantic love. Isn’t that a theme which fuels many an opera? I find Einstein a touching, moving and oddly reassuring work, one which I’ll be revisiting soon.