Einstein on the Beach (State Theatre, Melbourne, 1992)
Since its premiere at the Avignon Festival and subsequent six-nation tour, Einstein on the Beach has been revived just once, for a brief New York season in 1984. This second tour is billed as the final revival by the original production team, which includes the Philip Glass Ensemble and Lucinda Childs Dance Company. Given the synergy and interdependence of individual parts, it is difficult to imagine the opera without Robert Wilson’s design and direction, or Lucinda Childs’ choreography, though each component is showing definite signs of wear.
Yeah, that’s Phil’s autograph... just call me groupie.
Einstein on the Beach is a landmark work - not just because it marks the high point of "minimalism" and is the product of three of the great avant-garde artists of its time - but because it hangs suspended in the artistic cleft which divides modernism from postmodernism. Einstein on the Beach is audacious, richly ambiguous, and full of wild contradictions. It eschews naturalism and narrative, but still presumes to be an impressionist portrait of its time. It denies meaning but reserves the right to be meaningful. It is formalist, ironic, autistic, reflexive and - above all - uncompromising. The operatic medium is both subject and object. In Einstein on the Beach, the score, dramatic structure and subject matter are inextricably linked. The four-act opera is made up of nine scenes, three for each visual theme: train, trial and field with space machine. This structure coincides with the primary musical theme which combines out-of-phase rhythmic patterns in which a treble phrase is repeated three times for every four repetitions of the bass phrase. The second theme is a sine-waving arithmetic progression in which the bass line inverts and reflects the treble line. In the minimalist tradition, these modal fragments are repeated and varied.
The libretto uses numbers and the solfège syllables: do re mi &c. The first sung line is: "1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4 5 6, 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8." The libretto articulates the rhythm and pitch of the music. In short, the opera is a giant algebraic formula. It is a collision of art and science. Einstein, a man of apparently irreconcilable contradictions, is the mythic figure that draws these threads together: a scientist who used intuition rather than experimental deduction; an intellectual who believed in god; a pacifist enmeshed in the development of nuclear weapons; a man who detested nationalism but sympathised with the Zionist movement.
Einstein is our connection with the work; he is our way in. Einstein sits, playing the violin, midway between the pit and the stage, facing the audience. He is both participant and witness - as are we. Metaphors, of course, are only as rich as those who are prepared to probe them. Einstein’s position may, for example, reflect his exile status; he rescinded his German citizenship at the age of 17. He might also be Nero fiddling while the world burns, though Einstein was never one to deny his responsibility to the world.
Einstein questioned our basic notions of time. In a 270-minute, continuous work, time can’t help but be a theme. Wilson’s direction makes repeated references to its passage. Conspicuously, twelve of the performers wear wristwatches. A huge, hand-less clock, with fish-hook markings, towers over the trial scenes. Sheryl Sutton, in a solo dance, waves her arms around like the hands of a clock. Two stenographers stand to scratch their numb behinds. In the same "trial" scene, the cast pointedly take a lunch break, facing the audience. The delirious irony is that they are imprisoned, not us.
While much of the work is genuinely mesmerising, there are moments of staggering banality in both music and stage direction. Invariably, these are compensated for by other aspects of the work. So, for example, when the music is brutal and stodgy in Act II Scene i, the choreography is glorious. When the direction is feeble, as in Act II Scene ii, the music is inspirational.
Whatever one makes of the work itself, there can be no faulting its performers. All demonstrate endurance, precision, generosity, and great technical virtuosity. My own choice of highlights would include Susan Blankensop’s controlled walk and stunning perpendicular dance in the first scene.
While I am inclined to believe that Einstein on the Beach is an artistic cul de sac, and best approached as a wormhole to the New York avant-garde of the 1970s, it does manage to capture something of the spirit of Albert Einstein. In his own words, the greatest experience we can have is the mysterious.
Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass (music, lyrics) and Robert Wilson (design, direction). Choreography by Lucinda Childs. Spoken text by Christopher Knowles, Samuel M Johnson and Lucinda Childs. Lighting design by Beverly Emmons and Robert Wilson. Music direction by Michael Riesman. Sound design by Kurt Munkacsi.
With Lucinda Childs, Sheryl Sutton, the Philip Glass Ensemble and Lucinda Childs Dance Company.
State Theatre, Melbourne, September 17-20, 1992. Presented by the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts in association with IPA Presents, Inc. Also Spain, Japan, USA and France.