‘Einstein on the Beach’ comes to LA

Twenty years after the last time it was performed, and forty years after it redefined what opera is, LA Opera recently presented three performances of Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass, Robert Wilson and Lucinda Childs.  The production was hosted by LAO at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and spirits were high as the crowd gathered for the dress rehearsal — with a particularly unusual collection of characters, as tickets were made available primarily to special groups and donors.  As curtain time drew closer, a large group of French travelers gleefully posed for pictures in front of the fountain while their designated photographer cycled through the dozen or so cameras proffered for documenting the occasion.  A group of costumed “Einsteins” in breeches, Oxfords and white wigs struck a Childsian pose (inspired by the one pictured) at the main entrance, giving the event an air of ComiCon-style celebration.  Never has one of the world’s most noted geniuses seemed like such a rock star — the audience was psyched up and ready for this four-and-a-half-hour minimalist marathon, and the air seemed to sizzle like a Tesla coil.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  This is a work we studied in school in the ’90s, but of course, I had never seen it performed live.  Since my professors likely hadn’t either, no one had effectively explained that to hear and to see this work are two very, very different things. There is simply no way a recording or even a video can communicate the total experience.  This opera, more than any other I’ve seen, is the culmination of talents of all three creators, and indeed, the authorship is generally expressed to include all three names.  The equality of each collaborator’s domain, and the totality of each of their influences on the end result, left me awe-struck and thoroughly inspired.

This is what makes “EOTB” a difficult show to describe, because it is assuredly unlike anything else you’ve seen in an opera house. It is minimalism at its finest and most literal — long periods of repetitive or similar music and actions, deliberately generic costuming, and in spite of oversized elements like the train, a giant clock and the giant beaker, mostly mere suggestions of traditional scenery: a nondescript tower, a platform, two chairs.  The stage lacks a sense of place, but it expands the possibilities rather than limiting the space. Many clever effects are achieved with lighting and choreography, making even the lights and the players, at times, more scenery than story.

Structured in clear, almost arbitrary sections, the opera is deceptively simple. This is important to the interaction: each section must be experienced, not followed. The action is slow, but never-ending, and divided across multiple focal points, so there’s always something new to see and hear — you start to learn that what you see is closely related to that other thing you just saw or heard.  This plays interesting tricks on the mind, and requires a different kind of watching and listening, more reminiscent of meditative discipline than entertainment.  But it is no less fulfilling than excellent traditional narrative, if you’re up for it.

Photo by Lucie JanschSo clearly, this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea — if you’re looking for a fun show, Einstein on the Beach will be a challenge.  To state the obvious, minimalism is all about doing more with less, and this work can be an exceptional consciousness-expanding interlude, using observation and engagement to draw your mind out of everyday.  It is the extreme version of what art can do for us, and so it isn’t terribly surprising that this project has been called the greatest artistic achievement of the 20th century.  Such a thing is impossible to quantify, of course, but based on this production, it’s an arguable point.

If I haven’t lost you by this point, you’re probably either in complete agreement or hopping mad.  In art, as in life, the extreme tends to rile a lot of opinions.  But as artists, we must make the effort to try lots of things, if only to discover what moves us in our own work, and this lentement approach to experiential performance seems somehow even more relevant in the high-speed modern world.  With the constant ingestion of ideas and seemingly endless answers at our fingertips, when was the last time you fixated on something mysterious, and just thought about it?  This format gives us time, literally, to think, as the procession from one thought or scene to the next is so slow.  There is method to this madness, much like the gurus show their meditation students how to slow down their thoughts, so they can hear the other thoughts.  This is most clearly put to use in the final scenes:

The scrim rises to show a simple, lighted box on stage.  From our vantage point, it looks maybe 1 ft x 1 ft x 25 ft, but is probably considerably larger. It’s hard to tell, because all we see is the long, low, white light. Everything else is black.

What does it mean? Oh, now it’s tilting. How are they doing that? Look how slowly it’s moving — even slower than my already retarded breathing. In a hurried world, the very crawl of its motion seems like a miracle.  (Milan Kundera would love this).  Once fully upright, it is a tall, strong tower, a beacon.  Whoops, now it’s lifting into the dark sky, eaten alive by the dark as a soprano sings in sweet, limpid and haunting tones. Does it symbolize an idea, a goal, an element, a faith? A fear?

In the end, what’s it all about?  Drive, progress, learning, knowledge, grace… And finally, love.  The opera ends with a story that ends with a kiss.  It’s about life.

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