Books and Arts; Opera review; Einstein on the beach;
Breaking the waves; An avant-garde opera on a rare world tour.
THE music of “Einstein on the Beach” is so grand and epic—yet so mesmerising and repetitive—that it feels as if it were the soundscape of a dream. Indeed, much of this odd and wondrous opera, the work of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, with some transcendent choreography from Lucinda Childs, seems to inhabit a liminal space, eerie and otherworldly. Clocking in at nearly five hours without an interval (viewers can come and go as they please), the production is less a work of entertainment than an experience.
“Einstein” stunned audiences at the opera’s premiere in Avignon 36 years ago; its narrative-free mesh of music, dance and drama inspired many to feel that they were witnessing something unprecedented. Word of mouth ensured “Einstein” enjoyed a sell-out tour in Europe, and then a hero’s welcome home in New York in late 1976, where the show filled every seat at the Metropolitan Opera. “The avant-garde has become official,” exclaimed a Met producer at the time.
But the opera’s success did not mean it was profitable. As it happens, few operas make money and “Einstein” is quite a spectacle—even though it is often described as a landmark of minimalism. Its inaugural run may have made Messrs Glass and Wilson famous, but it also left them bankrupt. Not long after their Met triumph, Mr Glass went back to cab-driving in New York, struggling to make ends meet. This ordeal, together with the fact that this opera is uniquely demanding on performers and audience-members alike, has ensured that “Einstein” productions are rare.
So it is impressive that a new production of this unwieldy classic—the first in 20 years—is now making its way around the world, as part of a year-long celebration of Mr Glass’s 75th birthday. After appearances in France, Italy and Britain (where it was performed at the Barbican as part of the London 2012 Festival), its next stop is Toronto’s Sony Centre from June 8th to 10th.
Watching the show now, some of the scripted moments feel a little absurd. And Mr Wilson’s extravagant staging reinforces the opera’s reputation as a money pit. But the two extended dance segments are irrepressibly uplifting. And the meditative music, which is so technically challenging that Mr Glass originally had trouble finding performers for it, washes over listeners, as coolly vast and mysterious as the sea itself.