Of Bathing Caps and Spaceships: Einstein on the Beach for the Twenty-First Century

United StatesUnited States Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach, Philip Glass Ensemble (LA Opera Season), Michael Riesman (conductor), Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, 11.10.2013-13.10.2013 (JRo)


Einstein at the Beach Photo (c) Lesley Leslie-Spinks
Einstein on the Beach Photo (c) Lesley Leslie-Spinks

The unique opera that is “Einstein on the Beach” is a product not only of the minds of Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, Christopher Knowles, and Lucinda Childs, but also of the nineteen seventies… and sixties…and fifties… and without doubt the thirties and twenties.  If one believes, as I do, that art is created within an historical context, that it builds upon the art that preceded it and can only be formed in reaction to art of the past, then Glass and Wilson have mined a very rich vein of music and art history.  They not only followed the art that came before but also opened the door for theatrical staging and musical exploration for the art that followed.

And so here are my impressions of the piece in keeping with, to quote Glass, the “resolutely nonsensical from beginning to end.”

Richard Wagner and Wieland Wagner, George Antheil and Fernand Leger, Kurt Jooss and Fritz Cohen, John Cage  Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg.  Bathing caps, typewriters, brown bags, cookies.  Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, Peter Brook, Andrei Serban, Richard Foreman. Baggy pants, spaceships, trains, wigs.  “Metropolis,” “Modern Times,” “2001 A Space Odyssey,” “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” “It Came From Outer Space.”  Patty Hearst, chalk, clocks, suspenders.  Russian Constructivism, German Expressionism, Hans Richter, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Sol Lewitt, Chris Burden.  Baggy pants, Crazy Eddie, Bojangles, jail.  Lewis Carroll, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Walt Disney.  Supermarkets, air conditioning, clocks, beakers.  Darwin, Einstein, Oppenheimer, Diver Dan.

“Einstein on the Beach” defies labeling – opera barely covers it.  It’s a theatrical/musical experience where one is taken prisoner – alternately enthralled, irritated, illuminated, and uplifted.  Does it need to be four and a half hours long to get its glorious and painful self across to an audience?  Probably not, but then it wouldn’t be winner of the Olympic Decathlon of musical theater.

For me a review of this landmark achievement is nearly superfluous.  By its very nature, it defies description.  It’s a jigsaw puzzle of ciphers, symbols, sounds, and visions; and it’s up to each and every viewer/listener to put it together in his or her own heads.  In fact, like so much of the downtown New York theater of the seventies, where and when “Einstein” was created, it’s the audience as participant as well as viewer.  Take, for example, the frantic electrical charge that went through many of us in 1974 when, standing up for the performance, we were chased around a 4th street loft by a horde of Trojan women in Andrei Serban’s and Elizabeth Swados’s play at La MaMa.

Though you aren’t, as an audience member, actively involved in the staging, you are asked to sit hours on end without intermission, with little or no narrative structure to hold onto.  It’s an endurance piece (as denoted by art practioners), on the part of the ticket holder – rewarding and exhausting all at once.  Even some of Wagner’s operas, clocking in at four hours plus, offer down time at intermission.  And yes, you are invited to leave anytime throughout “Einstein” and take a break, but given the musical and artistic invention, who wants to walk out and miss anything?

But onto a few specifics:  Lucinda Child’s choreography, as danced by her talented troupe, was the perfect marriage with Glass’s score, a ceaseless cascade of basic ballet forms – jetés, fouettés, piqué turns, to name a few – all intense movement, all performed with arms at shoulder height to add a minimalistic aura to the steps.  Outfitted in pale gray and beige and performed against a neutral tinted watercolor palette of light, the dancers embodied the music.

Einstein at the Beach Photo (c) Lucie Jansch
Einstein on the Beach Photo (c) Lucie Jansch

Conducted by Michael Riesman, the Philip Glass Ensemble performed the driving yet often times subtle score.  Los Angeles is the last stop of the production in North America and Glass was on hand, along with Wilson and Childs, for opening night.  The chorus was flawless in their rendering of the demands of the music.  Hai-Ting Chinn performed her Act Four, Scene Two solo with a supernatural edge.  Jennifer Koh as Einstein on the violin was a wonder of precision and spirit.  On tenor saxophone, Andrew Sterman, in Act Four, brought a reflective, human scale to the entire evening – a poetic musing of American streets and sounds.  Was the industrial brick building in the background the old Bell Labs Research Center (which became Westbeth Artists Community and declared an historical landmark in 1975) where so many modern technical marvels were invented?

Helga Davis and Kate Moran shone in the Knee Plays and throughout the evening.  Charles Williams in his roles as judge and bus driver was the one false note for me.  His characters were given voice to emotive ramblings – a sharp contrast to the rest of the proceedings.  One particular speech, parodying feminism and the women’s movement, I found dated.  Though as judge, he was, in all probability, giving voice to the prejudices of the time, the speech came across as harsh and strident, at odds with the rest of the piece.  As the bus driver, he tells, in a cozy voice, a romantic tale at the end of the opera – an intentionally jarring bit of storytelling to what purpose? Perhaps it was a poke at melodramatic endings.

In the case of “Einstein on the Beach” the audience came to be transported via spaceship, train, or bus to the outer dimensions of Glass and Wilson’s world and received more than it could possibly have imagined – still mesmerizing in the twenty-first century.

Jane Rosenberg