There was a time when many people associated opera with belting sopranos, dramatic plot lines and possibly even a viking hat. And then "Einstein on the Beach" came along. The four-act opera, scored by Philip Glass and directed by Robert Wilson, shattered the conception of what opera could be when it premiered in 1976.
Stripped of plot, the experimental piece explores the iconic aura of Einstein without delving into his personal narrative. Instead moving stage pictures float amidst recurring images referencing Einstein's life. A toy train, a violin and electric golden lights create an intangible truth far from the usual method of relaying facts. The experimental visuals are brought to life with choreography from modern dance legend Lucinda Childs, who danced as a principal performer in the original performance. Instead of an orchestra, Glass invokes synthesizers, woodwinds and ghostly voices for his ambient symphony.
The five hour long piece is an abstract journey without beginning or end, loosely referencing Einstein's childhood, scientific theories and work's dangerous ramifications before floating onward. At the time of its premiere the work was nothing less than groundbreaking, but how will it hold up today? The first revival of the piece in its entirely in 20 years is embarking on a yearlong international tour, making U.S. stops in Brooklyn and Berkeley.
Although every performance of the work thus far has been sold out, few have gotten the chance to experience the full show live until now. Not everyone has been thrilled with the revival, however. The performance received a particularly scathing review from The Guardian's Rupert Christiansen, who called the performance "flatulently pretentious in its wilful opacity and without aesthetic, intellectual or spiritual substance. It is also asphyxiatingly tedious and left me wanting to scream." Glass expresses a sort of familiarity with this response in the trailer above, recounting the general reaction that "there must be something else" to the piece. "No," he responds, "that's it."
Wilson expressed a similar belief: "You don't have to understand anything. It's a work where you go and you get lost, that's it." This idea, at least, sounds good to us.
See images from the performance below: