The 1976 premiere of “Einstein on the Beach” shook audiences up, recalling the shock at Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” in 1913. There was something incomprehensible, even infuriating, about Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s “Einstein,” but in spite of that — or perhaps, in part, because of it — the work became a landmark, challenging and enlarging traditional ideas and conventions of opera, theater and dance.
Glass called “Einstein” a “non-narrative,” and the work’s nonlinear text was partly inspired by a neurologically challenged man. Along with director-designer Wilson’s evocative lighting, the production relies on carefully chosen images as a structuring device. It also includes abstract dance sequences and a mesmerizing score by Glass.
Combined, these elements created an epic, hypnotic journey into the unconscious for some — and an annoying, pointless exercise for others. The five-hour opera also has no formal intermission, something even the limits-testing Wagner never attempted.
Despite all this, the musical and visual architecture of “Einstein” still appeals and provokes on profound multiple levels, and revivals continue to roll out.
The latest ends its international tour with its much belated Los Angeles premiere, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion the weekend of Oct. 11-13 under the auspices of Los Angeles Opera and UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance.
Why did it take so long for “Einstein” to come to Los Angeles?
“ ‘Einstein on the Beach’ is a dream long deferred both for Angelenos and for L.A. Opera specifically, which has been involved in this conversation for almost seven years,” Christopher Koelsch, the company’s president and chief executive officer, said by phone from his downtown office.
But Koelsch added that Glass’ longtime producer, Linda Brumbach, “deserves most of the credit” for keeping the opera on track for Los Angeles. “She had the tenacity to absorb the blow,” he said, when plans for a 30th anniversary “Einstein” revival fell apart in 2005-06.
“My company, Pomegranate Arts, has been working on this current revival for the last 15 years,” Brumbach wrote in an e-mail from Helsinki, Finland. “It took 37 years, but bringing ‘Einstein on the Beach’ to Los Angeles has been a dream for the creative team since they originally created the work.”
Brumbach pointed out that “Einstein on the Beach” requires a touring company of 65 people, including a highly accomplished design team, a touring technical crew, the Lucinda Childs Dance Company, featured actors who are not themselves opera singers, as well as the Philip Glass Ensemble and a virtuoso solo violinist.
The revival has been recast using the original set design, rebuilt from Wilson’s original drawings. For the three-performance Los Angeles run, the superb violinist Jennifer Koh, equally at home with traditional and knotty contemporary scores, will play the bewigged role of Einstein. And while the great physicist also played violin, it’s doubtful he had the technique to handle Glass’ incantatory spiraling figures, which occur at key points throughout the opera.
Brumbach was too young to see the 1976 premiere of “Einstein,” and she was away at college for its 1984 engagement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. But she served as general manager of the 1992 revival and toured the work internationally in eight cities.
“The audience response was thrilling,” Brumbach said, “standing ovations everywhere. But I have noticed that although they are permitted to come and go as they please, this time around, a majority of the audience is staying in their seats. Perhaps the need for a cigarette break has deteriorated over the years.”
Koelsch said that even with fewer aisles in the orchestra, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion offers “lots of leg room, so people don’t have to get up for people wandering in and out.”
For Tim Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning music and journalism professor at USC, “Einstein” continues to “change a lot of minds and thinking about what goes on in a classical opera.”
“There really had been nothing like it before,” Page said. “And I say this as somebody who likes a lot of Philip’s later work: There’s really been nothing like it since.”
Page believes “Einstein” freed people up. “It gave permission for people to find their own personal conceptions of opera or theater,” he said. Wilson, a provocative artist in his own right, “had been doing his theater stuff for a long time. He’s done work with other composers, none of which have had the same spectacular effect that `Einstein’ did.”
Page admitted, however, that the opera can drive some people “absolutely crazy.”
“It was probably the strangest and most radical combination of music and drama since the Virgil Thomson-Gertrude Stein ‘Four Saints in Three Acts,’ performed in 1934,” Page said. “It was kind of a predecessor of ‘Einstein.’ “
For Koelsch, too, “Einstein” still represents something unique. “I wonder, in my darker moments, whether music and theater and dance might be stuck,” he said, “where this piece still feels so cutting-edge for people. It really plays with people’s expectations of form.”
Brumbach agreed. “In fact, in the 1980s and ’90s,” she said, “live performance on this scale became more conventional.”
Audiences may not connect with all the historic references in “Einstein,” such as the Patty Hearst trial, following the kidnapping of the heiress-turned-temporary-terrorist, which was going on at the time, or the title’s link to “On the Beach” — Nevil Shute’s 1957 best seller about nuclear catastrophe.
“My guess is that a lot of specific time connections would be lost today,” Page said, “but significant works of art seem to bring their own new connections.”
Koelsch believes the next revival of “Einstein” could be as far as 15 to 20 years away, and that the performances in Los Angeles may be our last chance to witness the active creative participation of Glass, Wilson and choreographer Childs, all of whom are in their 70s.
“This is the first time that Phil hasn’t been in the pit, and that Bob [Wilson] and Lucinda haven’t been in it,” Koelsch said. “So they were able to gain a perspective on the work they wouldn’t have had from inside.”
Glass, now 76, recently told a reporter for the British newspaper The Guardian that he’s especially happy with the latest production. “We’re seeing for the first time what we actually wanted to see back then,” Glass said.
Koelsch offered one example of what Glass meant. “There are specific lighting technologies, like dimmable fluorescents, which simply didn’t exist for the previous revivals,” Koelsch said, “and which offer Bob even greater control over the refined and singular lighting effects for which he is justifiably renowned.”
For her part, Brumbach said she has been especially overwhelmed by a new generation of audiences responding so deeply to the opera.
“It’s been refreshing for people to come into this magnificent world, unplug, dream, be allowed to experience a major piece of art under your own terms. There is nothing to compare to ‘Einstein on the Beach’ — that is the allure.”
For ticket information, call (213) 972-8001 or visit laopera.com.
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