Genius on the stage

The legendary Glass-Wilson opera comes to Ann Arbor

Jan 18, 2012 at 12:00 am

Mysterious and beautiful, an amalgam of avant-garde theater, opera and dance, Einstein on the Beach rattled the art world with its 1976 debut. Stage director and designer Robert Wilson and composer Philip Glass, visionaries both, took cutting-edge ideas nurtured in the intimacy of New York's downtown loft scene and staged a four-hours-plus spectacle uptown at the hallowed Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center. What's more, they brought the downtown audience uptown for two sold-out Sundays. 

As Philip Glass once recounted: "I remember standing backstage during the second Sunday's performance, watching the audience with one of the higher-up administrators of the Metropolitan Opera. He asked me, 'Who are these people? I've never seen them here before.' I remember replying very candidly, 'Well, you better find out who they are, because if this place expects to be running in 25 years, that's your audience out there.'"

Thirty-six years later, an audience is still ready to sit through this mesmerizing landmark of 20th century culture. Einstein has been much written about, thrice recorded and is the subject of a documentary, but it's rarely been performed since its debut. The three sold-out (sorry) performances this weekend at the Power Center in Ann Arbor mark only the second time that this modern masterpiece has been staged in North America outside of New York City. 

Einstein on the Beach: An Opera in Four Acts presents a narrative-free, abstract, dreamlike, prismatic impression of the iconic scientist over something close to five hours with no intermission. Rather than tell a story, Einstein slowly reveals a system of repeating motifs, both visual and musical.

This past Sunday, at the Penny Stamps Lecture in Ann Arbor, Wilson and Glass talked about Einstein and the difficulty that so many people have with this kind of abstraction. "Abstraction is really not a part of our vocabulary, for most people," Wilson lamented. A particular gesture, he said, "has no meaning for me. It's something pure on its own, it's something abstract. And it doesn't have to relate to the music, it doesn't have to relate to the text. It can be something pure on its own, as a movement."

One inspiration here is from Merce Cunningham in the world of avant-garde dance, where movement is independent of sound or visual cues. Another source, Wilson explained, is the collaboration between Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson from the early 1930s: "Four Saints in Three Acts, was a great inspiration to me, because it was not a narrative. It was theme and variation. I directed the play, about 10 or 12 years ago, and it was so curious. The New York Times review was shocking. They were trying to make a story when there is no story. There was nothing really radically new about it. Once you call it 'opera,' it's very difficult to make you think abstractly. We can experience it just for time-space construction. It doesn't have to tell you a narrative." 

The music of Einstein breaks from convention too. Instead of utilizing an orchestra, the opera turns to the intense, compact setup of the Philip Glass Ensemble: two electronic keyboards, three woodwinds, a solo vocalist, all amplified as if ready to play a rock concert. For this particular work, the ensemble also features a chorus and solo violin (Einstein was an amateur violinist, after all). And Glass composed his sometimes dignified, sometimes agitated, always haunting music to fit Wilson's designs — it usually works the other way around in opera. The repetitive motifs that Glass and his minimalist contemporaries jarred the establishment with back then are now commonplace, appearing in movie scores (Glass has written music for The Hours, among other films), as an influence on rock bands, and even in car commercials. 

More often than not, the activity in Einstein unfolds with a glacially paced majesty. But at times it explodes, like during choreographer Lucinda Childs' celebrated dance solo, "Character on Three Diagonals," wherein she repeatedly, obsessively and captivatingly traverses a diagonal on stage for close to half an hour. This all occurs in sets designed by Wilson that contain hints of Giorgio De Chirico, Dan Flavin and Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The architectural minimalism of the sets is revealed through Wilson's stunning mastery of theatrical lighting design.

The rehearsals and the performance itself demand a lot from those involved. Lindsay Kesselman is an Ann Arbor-based soprano who specializes in the works of contemporary composers, and is part of the 16-member chorus for this tour. 

"We are actually on stage as the audience is filtering into the auditorium, before the curtain time. So it really ends up being about a five-hour performance, and that's extraordinary," she explains. "That is a completely new experience for me and for many of us, to maintain our level of intense focus on the material, the music and the movement, for that length of time. That's a big challenge, and a wonderful one. We are all finding our new rhythm in that kind of space and time."

The sung part of the libretto consists exclusively of numbers (one through eight) and solfege syllables (do, re, mi, etc.). The chorus members, Kesselman says, "are another amplified instrument in this piece. We call ourselves 'human synthesizers.' That's what we feel like a lot of the time. The vocal parts are written very instrumentally — not putting in very many rests for us to breathe. We have to catch our breath in between things when we can, and leave out some syllables when we need to in order to get some air and keep going. So that's completely a new style for all of us. We are figuring out how to make that work and get the sound to be really consistent from moment to moment."

Wilson and Glass periodically incorporate texts spoken by actors from the company. Some texts come from the writings of Christopher Knowles, an autistic poet Wilson befriended in the early 1970s, who scrambled and reassembled fragments of 1970s radio staples like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Carole King.

Another text, a dreamlike account of encountering bathing caps was contributed by choreographer Lucinda Childs. It's in a section titled "A Prematurely Air Conditioned Supermarket." In a phone interview, Childs says that some of this remains enigmatic even to her: "It seemed that I never really understood the title and those kinds of explanations aren't very important to Philip or Bob. However, they said that nothing in the opera referred to the beach, and this is Einstein on the Beach. So I decided to work with Bob, who wanted me to work on a text that incorporated some kind of reference to the beach. It was all done in a very sort of casual way. He liked some of the texts that I came up with and decided to use it. I performed that text and also Christopher Knowles' text, which of course I was influenced by. I think they were very beautiful, all of the texts he has contributed to the opera."

Einstein was certainly a breakthrough for its creators, who have since gone on to cement their positions in the world of culture. At the time of the uptown debut, though, the company was left holding a $150,000 bill for the Met performances, even though they were both sold out. In a famous anecdote, to help make ends meet, Glass returned briefly to his erstwhile day job as a cabbie, leading to a surreal moment when one of his fares, noticing the name of her driver, informed him that he shares it with the famous composer Philip Glass.

Two previous revivals (in 1984 and 1992) brought forth chances to re-evaluate Einstein, underscoring it as a cornerstone of contemporary performance. The production that will be previewed in Ann Arbor should do the same. 

"I think everyone is really excited for the opportunity to re-imagine this piece," Kesselman says. "They don't want it to be an exact replication. They want it to be representative of this time and these audiences and these performers. I really like that. I think it's wonderful that they're evolving and letting the piece evolve."

Glass shared some of his recent thoughts about Einstein with the Penny Stamps audience. Linking his methodology to the binary code at the base of the information superhighway, Glass said, "We were working in a kind of digital, binary language. We were able to extend movement, and sound, and time, not through a story, but through building blocks that repeated themselves, pretty much the way ones and zeros can define information. In a funny way we were stumbling through, we were formulating a theatrical language which was very similar to something that was going to happen 20 years later."

But much has changed since the last Einstein on the Beach performances in 1992. Einstein now stands iconoclastically, against the rapid-fire mouse-clicking and the information deluge that can overwhelm our lives. 

With its promise of sublime beauty and serene spectacle, audiences may find that it still points to the future. 

All three weekend performances of Einstein at the Beach at the Power Center are sold out. See for more shows in its season. See Page 53 for Robert Wilson's ongoing Video 50 at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.