If anyone had told me that I would sit for 4 hours and 35 minutes through an opera without an intermission, I would have said, "No way." Yet that is exactly what I did on Friday night. I sat through the entire length of the musical performance at the L.A. Opera's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion titled Einstein at the Beach. My Huffington readers may recall that I wrote a long piece about it two weeks ago, extolling the virtues of a work which I admittedly had never seen but heard so much about. I think I echoed the party line: that it was a revolutionary work which had earned unanimous praise over the years since its first performance in this country at the N.Y. Met in 1976. At that time, The New York Times raved: "It makes our contemporary domestic plays look like ancient artifacts of a forgotten age." But I read in the program that Glass was so broke after this American debut that he went back to driving a taxi! Our local paper's astute music critic, Mark Swed, said that its promoters called it "one of the biggest cultural events of the season." Well, it was a big event... but at the end of the evening I kept thinking of the story about the Emperor's Clothes. I must admit that I watched it with a packed house that, for the most part, sat through the entire epic without too much restlessness. Yes, the advance word was that you could exit the auditorium at any time for rest and refreshments, and lots of people did that but most returned. (Even Wagner has an intermission or two.) And at the end there was the usual standing, cheering ovation. My body was aching and my head was spinning as I got in my car for the long ride home and thought about what I had just experienced.
It is called an opera, but it really isn't. It is a musical experience... with no cohesive storyline or dramatic narrative... a series of somewhat tedious "pictures" and dances performed by a huge cast of actors, singers, and dancers, mostly in slow motion! Yes, the entire performance on stage was done in slow motion, from the opening moments when the singers entered the pit in slow motion, to the two guys sitting silently at tables onstage as we entered. We listened to a woman's voice repeating an endless stream of numbers, while you heard random strains throughout the evening of someone talking about "Mr. Bojangles." Now I remember dancer Bill Robinson singing and tapdancing "Mr. Bojangles" to Shirley Temple in a film, and Sammy Davis singing the song about Mr. B., but I am sure most members of the audience had no idea of who he was. I found a quote from Wilson: "People expect opera to be narrative. This is not narrative, This is not a work that gives answers. So much of what we have in theatre and opera is saying, 'Do you understand?' It's okay to get lost... like a good novel. You have to let go. It's something you experience." Yes, indeed, it was something I experienced... once.
I will applaud my dear friends Bernie and Lenore Greenberg, who strove mightily with their fellow opera associates like Chairman Marc and Eva Stern, Leonard Green's Foundation, LLWW Foundation, Mark Dalzell, Ceil and Michael Pulitzer and Dudley Rauch to bring this production by Pomegranate Arts, Inc., here. UCLA's Center for the Art of Performance also participated. A valiant effort which will be rewarded by admiration....and controversy. Well, perhaps I am a lone voice in the wind about this evening. At this writing I have not yet seen the reviews, which will be forthcoming shortly. What may have happened is that when this visionary work was first conceived by composer Philip Glass and director Robert Wilson, and performed we had not yet been exposed to such theatrical adventures as Cirque de Soleil and the like, no Internet and cable TV.... and so it was recognized back then as a new-form experience. But now we as an audience are jaded, so this long, tedious incoherent work seems -- at least to me, a dinosaur. An opera? Not really. I'm old-fashioned enough to think an opera is a theatrical work which has an exciting musical score, a coherent storyline, and performers who can thrill me. Nothing like that happened on Friday evening.
I happen to enjoy watching ballet, and this night the Lucinda Childs Dance Company performed 22-minute long exercises in dance. On a bare stage the dozen dancers -- eight men and four women -- pranced up and down and around with remarkable skill and daring. But it went on much too long... and then was repeated some time later for another 20 minutes of prancing and dancing. Come on, while a certain segment of the audience may have loved it, it needed cutting. (The androgynous blonde female dancer was a standout... such energy!)
And there was a long solo jazz riff by a terrific tenor saxophone player, Andrew Sterman, who really killed it... but also, too long. I spent 20 minutes just watching a bar of light slowly being elevated from the floor to the ceiling, against the throbbing of organ music. There was an exhibit in the lobby of various Einstein portraits and documents, but the closest the "opera" came to him was a young Japanese woman, Jennifer Koh, wearing an Einstein wig and sitting in the lower left corner of the stage playing a violin interminably. Every 20 minutes or so there is a new tableau: a steam train, a trial and a jail, a luminous brick building, that bar of light, two people in a cupola looking like the figures on a wedding cake. The second scene puts a bed on trial -- why? Because, Wilson has explained, "Einstein had dared to be a dreamer." He explains the scene where a woman picks up a gun as referring to the Patty Hearst trial of years ago. The work ends with a cacophony of flashing lights and gyrating actors; I was reminded of a bad Las Vegas show. No plot, no character development, nothing like that. I must admit that I was somewhat mesmerized... or hypnotized... waiting for something to happen. Occasionally, it did. But not often.
In its 37-year run, there have been four distinct productions. I have read that this is the next-to-last stop on this version's international tour (it ends in Paris), and probably the last time the three creators will work on it together. So be it. Philip Glass has a new opera, The Perfect American, which recently opened in London to very diverse opinions. It is about the final days of Walt Disney, and Mark Swed in Saturday's L.A. Times accuses the L.A. Opera people of being afraid to produce it for fear of antagonizing the Disney family. Now that's an opera I would like to see!
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