So let’s get to the bottom line: Was it worth redeeming airline miles, reserving a hotel, buying a right tier ticket and traveling from Seattle, Wash. to Berkeley, Calif. to watch a 4 1/2-hour opera by Philip Glass?
The short answer is yes. Yes, it was worth it.
Did Einstein on the Beach turn me from a passing Philip Glass fan to a Glassian acolyte? No, it did not. I like Glass as much now than I did before.
If anything, my fear was traveling 673 miles (according to available statistics on Grindr) only to end up at a non-offensive, non-denominational school play. So many navels have been subjected to deep staring when discussing the cultural impact of Einstein on the Beach that it’s almost ripe for disappointment.
Like that time I rented Pulp Fiction from the video store.
I recently re-read Glass’ autobiography, Music by Philip Glass, published just a few years after the premiere of Satyragraha, so I was briefed on how Einstein on the Beach was created. When I bought the ticket, I ordered the 1993 soundtrack on Nonesuch Records.
I went into the show vaguely aware of what to expect. It was still nice to see it come to life.
When the audience enters, Knee Play 1 is already in progress. From my vantage point on the tier, I could see the chorus enter the pit, one by one, stopping in mid-stride as they emerged, an invisible pause button interrupting their motions. I imagined that pause button operated by director Robert Wilson in some remote location.
With the chorus in place, the mic level on the Knee Play actresses (Helga Davis and Kate Moran) got enough of a boost to let the audience know it’s starting. But what is it?
Einstein on the Beach has no plot. Frankly, it could have been Newton or Hubble or Susskind on the beach. It doesn’t change the fact the evening was a showcase of rapid-fire singing, holistic staging and choreography that makes sense of Glass’ music from this period.
Most of my experience with Glass has been non-visual — I just have some recordings and a few scores. So it takes work to extract that large picture from all the tinier repeated motifs. Married to the choreography of Lucinda Childs, the incessant arpeggios and buzzing runs make corporeal the motion in Glass’ music.
The two Dance sections of Einstein were probably the ones I enjoyed the most.
Glass’ music can get hypnotic, and Wilson’s pacing often mirrors the gradual changes in the score. For the Trial, this combination becomes challenging. Trial is perhaps the most introspective moment in Einstein, and it’s easy to get lulled by the seemingly unchanging action and soothing music. In other words, I dozed off.
Glass and Wilson designed Einstein on the Beach in a such a way to let the audiences impose their own perspective on the action on stage. Night Train is a tableaux set on the end car of a passenger train, where a man in a suit and a woman in an evening gown regale the audience with their tale of solfège and numbers. At the end of this duet, she pulls a gun on him. That led me to tweet:
Hey, this opera has a romantic duet complete with tragic, violent end. See Night Train.
aworks came away from Einstein thinking about totalitarianism.
Other favorite moments for me included Trial 2: Prematurely Air-Conditioned Supermarket and Trial 1: All Men are Equal. Charles Williams really inhabits the speech originated by Samuel Johnson, bringing out the comedy that didn’t quite come across in the Nonesuch recording.
Also — Jennifer Koh as Einstein. That’s some stellar casting.
If Einstein gets another revival in another few years — and if I happen to be proximity of a performance — I’d be very much inclined to see it again. And if nothing you’ve read in this entry scares you off from seeing the current production, by all means — go.