Robert Wilson’s and Philip Glass’s seminal opera, Einstein on the Beach, made its triumphant Canadian debut Friday at the Sony Centre in a production that defies convention to this day, 36 years after its first performance. Filled with contemporary 1970s pop culture references from Patty Hearst to Mr. Bojangles to a list of NYC radio station WABC deejays, Einstein is both a timeless piece about time and a spacious piece about space.

Two days before opening night in a fascinating panel that uniquely chronicled the work’s origins by the three principal creators – dancer/choreographer Lucinda Childs is the third -- Wilson said its inspiration was “20th century god Albert Einstein.”  He explained that long duration plays always interested him – the production runs 4 hour and 20 minutes  -- and that he saw opera as an expression of its Latin origin “works” as in “including all the arts.”

Einstein comprises four acts and five brief  “Knee” connective interludes (Wilson calls them “close-ups”) and runs without intermission. The audience is welcome to come and go as it pleases. (Curiously, no one in the row I was in near the back of the Sony Centre’s main floor left their seats during the entire performance – except to stand at its conclusion.) The current production is the fourth since 1976 and the first since 1992. I was fortunate to attend the second at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1984, a mesmerizing experience as I recall. Based on that memory and recordings from the 1970s and 1992, this Luminato incarnation is indisputably the most musically proficient of the lot.

Wilson’s conceptual starting point for the opera, he explained at the panel, was a classical structure -- a theme and variations built around three images (a train, a trial and a field that would host a space machine). This solid foundation enables each scene’s individual elasticity to flourish. Wilson advised his audience not to look for meaning but to just get lost in it, quoting Susan Sontag: “To experience something is a way of thinking.”

Yet, Wilson did reveal that “On the Beach” alludes to the atomic bomb (specifically to the impending nuclear holocaust in Nevil Shute’s novel of the same name), that the train image is there because Einstein liked trains and that the lines of light, which slowly move in a myriad of ways throughout the opera, refer to time and space.

Wilson, trained as an architect, kept a notebook filled with drawings which were his ideas for Einstein’s visual content. When Glass came to compose the score at the piano he kept Wilson’s notebook in front of him. “The music came easily,” Glass said, attributing Einstein’s continued freshness after more than three decades to its being unlike any of their other collaborations.  “It’s sui generis,” he said.

Einstein appears in several guises throughout the work, as a young chalk-wielding theoretical physicist and as a sailing afficionado, for example, but most memorably as a violinist wearing what was (apart from the Beatles’ mop tops) arguably the most iconic hairstyle of the mid-20th century. The wig was worn by the prodigious Jennifer Koh (who played Spring and Summer from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with the TSO in March as part of a “What Makes It Great” concert).

In an impressive evening filled with time-bending stagecraft, energetic dancing that seemed to embody the “E” in Einstein’s most famous equation and unparallelled musicianship from soloists, chorus and instrumentalists led by Michael Riesman, Ms. Koh’s vibrant playing ranged from her forceful impeccably phrased repetitive cycles of notes -- a touchstone of much of the opera -- to the warmth of the haunting second theme in Knee 4.  

Two days earlier at the panel, Glass explained that the violin becomes a touchstone since the most important thing for a musician was that Einstein played the violin. As to why many of the lyrics consisted of solfege syllables (doh re mi) and numbers, Glass recalled that it started as a teaching device to get the singers used to his idiosyncratic tone palette and complex time signatures. Wilson happened to walk in on a rehearsal and expressed his pleasure with the “lyrics”.  Glass kept them, the result of “my clumsiness and Bob’s naivete.”

Two more standouts in Friday’s performance were Andrew Sterman’s compelling tenor saxophone solo in Act 4, Scene 1 which soared Gato Barbieri-like as twenty-one people moved onto the stage individually or in pairs, stop-frame style and Kate Moran whose rendition of  “Prematurely Air-Conditioned Supermarket” elevated Lucinda Childs’s eight lines of Laurie Anderson-like seemingly trivial consumerist insights into high performance art. That most of it was delivered while lying on a bed in front of a judge in the second trial scene (Act 3, Scene 1) only made it more remarkable. It was my personal show-stopping moment.

As part of Luminato and of Canadian commemorations of the bicentennial of the War of 1812, the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus is presenting the world premiere of Laura’s Cow: The Legend of Laura Secord. The 70-minute opera with music by Errol Gay to a libretto by Michael Patrick Albano is a charming work written to include all levels of the 200-voice CCOC from oldest to youngest plus three professional singers.  Told with abundant humour and imagination, this is an opera destined to last beyond its specific occasion to become a permanent part of the CCOC repertoire.

As with other historical characters who have become the stuff of legend, there is some disagreement about what Laura Secord actually did and how.  Albano sticks to the most accepted facts that Laura, née Ingersoll, (1775-1868) moved with her loyalist family from Massachusetts to Upper Canada.  In 1797 Laura married James Secord and settles in Queenston.  James, a sergeant in the 1st Militia, was wounded in during the Battle of Queenston Heights.  The Americans sequestered property, including the Secord farm, to billet their soldiers.  On the evening of June 21, 1813, Laura overheard the Americans planning a surprise attack on British troops led by Lieutenant James FitzGibbon at Beaver Dams that would lead to American control of the Niagara Peninsula.  Her husband still incapacitated from his wound, she set out alone to walk the 32 kilometres through enemy territory to warn FitzGibbon herself.  She took a cow along with her so she could claim she was taking it to sell at market.  She collapsed a short distance from Decew House, FitzGibbon’s headquarters, but was able give her warning in time, leading to a British victory at the Battle of Beaver Dams.

Albano’s begins the opera in the present with a school class preparing a play to celebrate Laura Secord during their study of the War of 1812.  Suddenly Laura herself (Emily Brown Gibson) appears to tell the children and their surprised teacher what really happened.  It transpires that what “really happened” actually involves quite a lot of fantasy but those fantastic elements are what will attract children to the story and help enliven the history.  A Balladeer (Andrew Love) becomes the narrator to set scenes and jump from one episode to the next.  He first appears as a square dance caller to lead into the scene of James Secord (Ivan Yordanov) courting Laura.

We shift from the human world to the animal world of the Ingersoll farm with its choruses of goats, sheep, chickens and pigs that introduces in grand style Laura’s Cow (Marta Herman).  A life-sized Trojan cow is pulled in out of which Herman pops to deliver a humorously bluesy number consisting entirely of the word “Moo”, after which she leads the barnyard animals in a boisterous charleston.  The scene is so much fun it is really beside the point to ask why Errol Gay has identified the animals with music one hundred years in their future, except that one sub-theme of the opera is that animals are more advance than we are because they are much more aware of their environment.

The most fascinating scene of the opera is also the most dramatically and musically advanced.  Laura, who feels helpless after James is wounded, goes to a church service where the congregation – men on one side women on the other – are singing a hymn.  In between verses, the chorus sings directly to Laura to be prepared to do something important when the time comes.  The effect is psychologically astute since Laura wonders whether it is God or her conscience speaking to her.

As we know, the occasion does arrive and urged on by her cow, Laura does take action.  Albano dramatizes her 32-kilometre trek by having her journey overseen by Ojibwe-speaking Native Guides and by her encountering various animals along the way – a bear, a colony of industrious beavers, a pack of untrustworthy coyotes and a herd of trustworthy deer.  At Decew House, Albano brings out the detail that the British soldiers won’t at first take Laura seriously until she defiantly insists on seeing FitzGibbon (also Andrew Love).  His praise of her gradually builds into a massive chorus encompassing the entire cast in praise of Laura, of Canada and of ordinary people having the power to do extraordinary things.  It is a wonderfully uplifting sequence and beautifully sung.

The overall nature of the opera is most reminiscent of Benjamin Britten first opera Paul Bunyan (1941), with its singing animals and eclectic mix of mood music and period-inspired tunes.  Gay draws a wide range of effects from the 14-member orchestra.  Its orchestral interludes sometimes sound Debussyan, sometimes like that of the great European exiles who scored so many films in the 1940s.  Gay is keenly aware that music for a children’s chorus must be clearly rhythmic and melodic.  His arias grow out of the atmospheric music but the textures are perfectly judged to suit the voices they are meant to accompany.  Besides the remarkable church scene and the rousing finale, perhaps the single loveliest song is the one about the wedding veil that he writes for Laura’s maid-of-honour Emma (Jacoba Barber-Rozema) that is filled with both the joy and sadness of a friend seeing another move on to another stage in life.

Emily Brown Gibson, who has been a member of the CCOC for six years, has a strong, clear voice that will surely acquire more fullness when it matures.  She gives a very winning portrait of Laura, not as an overblown figure, but as a good, seemingly unexceptional person who sees what is the right thing to do and does it.  All the flamboyance of heroism Albano and Gay give to Laura’s Cow.  Marta Herman is a delight throughout.  Her mezzo-soprano combines brightness and depth and her acting has the panache to make her character the most memorable in the opera.  Andrew Love has a heroic baritone and fine acting abilities which help explain the long list of opera engagements he has lined up in the future.

Special praise must be given to costume designer Lisa Magill who has found ingenious solutions to the many challenges the opera poses.  Her cow outfit for Herman is exceedingly witty.  She has pants and a blouse with a black-and-white splotch design, white rubber boots with black toes and a pink shoulder bag decorated with a row what look like pink basting bulbs.  The beavers are also wonderful with their brown mining hats, brown overalls with dependent quilted tails and wooden sticks, sandpaper and trowels for dam-building.  Her designs along with Fred Peruzza’s specialty props make the show a visual as well as musical pleasure.

CCOC Artistic Director Ann Cooper Gay conducts the orchestra and the singers with verve and precision.  Especially notable is how clear the diction is across the board – something that is hard to find even in all adult companies.  If you’re looking for a Luminato event for you and your family, this is an ideal one to choose.

©Christopher Hoile

Laura’s Cow runs at Harbourfront’s Enwave Theatre, 231 Queen’s Quay West, Toronto, June 7-10.  An alternate cast to the one discussed sings on June 8, June 9 evening and June 10 afternoon.  For tickets or more information visit

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