TRAVELLERS IN TIME
The continuing allure of a rarely performed opera with no plot that celebrates physicist Albert Einstein lies in its perception-altering qualities, writes Matthew Westwood
PEOPLE talk about Einstein on the Beach — the opera by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson — and how there is no story, the music is repetitive and the whole 41/ 2 hours will be a big yawn. But consider the positives. Compared with Verdi’s convoluted plot-lines, there’s no guesswork about who’s who and who did what. There are just some scenes about a train, a trial, a supermarket and a spaceship, and a violinist in a wig who could be a famous physicist.
Compared with Wagner’s long-winded music dramas, there’s no heavy mythology, no Germanic angst. Melburnians are in training for Der Ring des Nibelungen in November, the four-part epic that goes for 16 hours. Wagner demands total submission from his audiences: no chatter when the lights go down, no dipping into the picnic before the appointed hour.
And this is the real genius of Einstein: patrons are free to wander in and out during the performance. There’s no interval to hold up proceedings, just an invitation to enjoy at leisure. You can take a coffee break between, say, Dance 1 and Night Train; a snack stop between Dance 2 and Knee Play 4. Wagnerians will wonder why there are no such holidays in Valhalla. This latitude is not the only thing that sets
Einstein apart. Glass’s music is in no way like a conventional opera. The libretto comprises counted numbers, sung syllables and nonsense
texts that sound like something out of Gertrude Stein. The music does not give singers emotionally extravagant arias — there is no
Nessun dorma — but binds them to repeated phrases.
And it’s true Einstein is a plotless opera. It unfolds as a series of stage pictures that may be beautiful to watch but don’t advance any kind of story.
Einstein is a rare thing in the performing arts: an abstract opera. It may be, as Glass suggests, sui generis: a piece entirely of itself.
‘‘ The funny thing is that people thought it was a groundbreaking piece,’’ Glass says on the phone from New York. ‘‘ It was in one way, but in another way no one ever did it again: no one ever did another Einstein on the Beach.’’
Opera-makers before and after Einstein have experimented with the form, but Glass and Wilson’s composition did not appear to launch a school of abstract opera.
‘‘ Other people did other things, wonderful things,’’ Glass continues. ‘‘ But it didn’t really open a lot of doors. It simply opened a door to a world that was complete and no one seemed particularly anxious to add to it.
‘‘ To be truthful, I think Bob and I were surprised: no one took up that banner and ran with it.’’
Einstein on the Beach had its world premiere at the Avignon Festival in France in 1976 and went on a brief European tour before two performances at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. It was revived in 1984 and again in 1992, when it came to the Melbourne Festival (Richard Wherrett was festival director at the time).
A third revival is under way and will again bring Einstein to Arts Centre Melbourne. The city will therefore be among the few to have the Einstein experience twice.
Some people who were at the 1992 Melbourne Festival recall seeing Einstein as described above, coming and going during the performance, with trips to the bar and sneaky smokes outside. But dance-maker Lucinda Childs, one of Glass and Wilson’s collaborators on Einstein, says people these days are less likely to wander in and out. It may be to do with not wanting to interrupt other people in their seats; or with wanting to go the full
Einstein, start to finish. ‘‘ People ask me: ‘ What should I miss?’ ’’ Childs says. ‘‘ I can’t give them an answer. For me, it’s important to really see everything and try to stick it out. But, on the other hand, it’s not as if you are stepping into Act II of a Shakespeare. You won’t be completely lost if you come in at some other point in time.’’
THE attraction of Einstein, the perceptionaltering quality of it, is all to do with time. Nothing happens by way of narrative, yet the minutes and hours somehow fall away. The music avoids obvious dramatic signposting, yet can utterly absorb the listener’s attention.
In constructing a piece ostensibly about a great physicist, Glass, Wilson and Childs achieved something that may be the theatrical equivalent of time travel.
Consider their resumes. Glass in the 1960s and 70s was one of the early proponents of minimalism. He reversed the usual hierarchy of Western music, giving greater importance to rhythm, less to melody and harmony. Glass’s music is often characterised by its fast, repeated rhythmic patterns and slow-moving harmony, creating the illusion of frantic activity while seemingly standing still.
Wilson at this time had his own performance outfit, the Byrd Hoffman School of Birds, and was making a variety of experimental theatre that took performance to extraordinary lengths.
His first major piece, The King of Spain, was like a series of tableaus with no real story and went for three hours. Another piece, Ka
Mountain and Guardenia Terrace, was staged in Shiraz, Iran, in 1972 and went for seven days.
Childs had been making dance since the 60s, creating silent choreographies that didn’t involve music. In those heady days of experimental performance, Childs knew of Glass and Wilson, but had not worked with either of them. She recalls seeing one of Wilson’s plays,
Letter to Queen Victoria, and was so blown
away that she couldn’t wait to meet him. ‘‘ And it happened that when I did meet him, shortly after seeing that production, he wanted to talk to me about Einstein,’’ she says.
‘‘ Of course, I knew of Philip Glass — I’d been to many of his concerts — but I never worked with his music. In those experimental, postmodern days, we didn’t use music. He was the first composer for me to work with.’’
Childs was one of the performers, along with Sheryl Sutton, in the original 1976 production. With the 1984 revival, she created the choreography for a company of dancers.
Childs also contributed one of the frequently quoted spoken texts in the piece: ‘‘ I was in this prematurely airconditioned supermarket.’’ She says Glass and Wilson had come up with the title of their opera but had not worked out how a beach was involved.
In the prose-piece, repeated 25 times, the actor recalls a supermarket with summery things on display, and thinks it is still too cold to go to the beach.
‘‘ There is such a thing, in my opinion, supermarkets that are unnecessarily chilly,’’ Childs says. ‘‘ It’s fine for the food, but a little hard on the people.’’
In their experiments with performance time, Glass and Wilson found they were treading a similar path.
‘‘ We were both working with what people called extended time,’’ Glass says. ‘‘ I did pieces that were four hours long. And [Wilson] did a piece that was seven days long. Bob, when it comes to slowing down time, he is the maestro of time.
‘‘ We discovered that there was some aesthetic that we shared and we understood very quickly, each of us, what the other was doing. To be truthful, we never talked about it very much . . . We did the work, and everything seemed to be working just fine. We probably spent two years together, working on this one piece.’’
It seems their opera project was always going to have a biographical subject: Charlie Chaplin was proposed, then Hitler, and Gandhi. Wilson suggested Einstein, and the idea clicked.
But the collaborators knew they didn’t want a storybook libretto. They would not be making an opera like those by Verdi or Wagner — giants of the romantic repertoire, both of whom have bicentenaries this year — where the piece is conceived as the musical manifestation of a drama.
‘‘ What we were looking for, and what many people were looking for at that time, was a way of developing a theatrical event that didn’t depend on the simple storyboard, the simple narratives of conventional theatre,’’ Glass says.
‘‘ In Einstein, there was no real story. Bob said, ‘ Look, everybody knows who Einstein is, so we don’t really have to tell the story . . .’ It throws the meaning of the piece back on the viewer.’’
Wilson describes all his theatre pieces as time and space constructions. He is avowedly anti-naturalistic, as those who saw his production of The Threepenny Opera at this year’s Perth Festival may have noticed.
He is scornful of much contemporary drama on stage, film and television, where actors continually are trying to convey meaning, as if to say: ‘‘ Do you get it, do you get it? Do you understand?’’ In Einstein, there is nothing for the audience to understand.
‘‘ You can get lost, and it’s OK to get lost,’’ Wilson says. ‘‘ People still talk about it being something radical; it’s actually not, it’s very classical.
‘‘ You have three themes: A, B and C. Act I is A and B. Act II is C and A. Act III is B and C. And Act IV is A, B and C together. People were confused in the beginning because they were so accustomed to opera being something that tells a story. Here, there is no story, it’s theme and variations: that’s nothing new.’’
Who would have thought: Einstein on the Beach, that monument to the operatic avant- garde, could be as conventionally classical as a Mozart sonata? THE scene called Night Train begins with an electronic keyboard, with a slightly metallic sound setting, playing a mechanical rhythmic pattern: it could be the sound of a train going clickety-clack. The tempo is consistent, but Glass introduces changes in the rhythmic pattern, giving a sense of onward movement.
Then the voices enter in a duet: the man singing a sustained ‘‘ Fa’’, and the woman, ‘‘ Fa-si-la-si’’.
In a later section, numbers are introduced, with singers rapidly counting the beats: ‘‘ Onetwo-three, one-two-three’’, then ‘‘ One-twothree-four, one-two-three-four’’ and eventually ‘‘ One-two-three-four-five-six’’. The 20-minute piece continues into a section for chorus and ends with a perpetual-motion solo for keyboard.
The demands on the performers are unusual and unrelenting. The musical ensemble on the tour coming to Melbourne — under the direction of long-term collaborator Michael Riesman — may be the best Glass has heard. But at the time of the work’s premiere in 1976, the musicians did not yet have the performance skills the piece requires. The composer says they could barely play it.
‘‘ One of the problems, in terms of performance practice, is that we have to play so precisely,’’ he says. ‘‘ All the notes have to line up . . . So if someone falls out of line, it sounds terrible. The trouble with this music is that you can hear the mistakes. This [touring] group makes very few mistakes because they are very well trained.’’
Why not use electronic sequencers to do the hard yards of repeated notes? Surely they could be produced by a machine like pins, neat and perfectly timed. That may remove the possibility of human error, but Glass rejects the notion as being anathema to Einstein. ‘‘ We never use sequencers, I’ll tell you why,’’ he says. ‘‘ Whether you know it or not, what you are listening to is actually shifting all the time. Because of that you are unconsciously following it: it’s like watching birds on a beach.
‘‘ The trouble with sequencing is that sequencing is, literally, repetition. Almost nothing literally repeats in Einstein. Some of the choruses — where they go, ‘ One-twothree-four, One-two-three, One-two-threefour’, that combination of threes and fours — is constantly changing ... If it was the same thing over and over again, you wouldn’t be able to listen to it. It would be like listening to a doorbell or something. So the true psychology of the piece is of a different order.’’
This hints at the mesmerising, almost hypnotic allure of Einstein: its apparent repetition and infinite variety. If the piece seems to be busy going nowhere — musically and narratively — it has the effect of slowing down theatre-time and altering the audience’s perception of it.
‘‘ It’s not so much slowing down time; you can’t really slow it down,’’ Glass says. ‘‘ But you watch it, pay attention to it in a different way.’’
As Wilson explains, Einstein makes no demands of comprehension on the audience: sitting there, we are permitted to become absorbed in pattern, to free-associate, to go comfortably numb. He describes a similar effect in a piece he did last year in Norfolk, England, that was essentially a deliberately slow bushwalk.
‘‘ You began to see things differently, and you began to hear things differently, because your perception is altered,’’ he says. ‘‘ You become aware of things you wouldn’t necessarily become aware of.’’
Einstein on the Beach represents an early landmark in the careers of three collaborators who have each gone on to many more highprofile projects.
Wilson is a multidisciplinary auteur whose projects involve theatre, opera and installation. His recent work includes The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic — a theatre piece with artist Marina Abramovic, Willem Dafoe and singer Antony Hegarty — and a production of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu with music by Lou Reed.
Childs, who brought her dance ensemble to the Perth Festival last year, has ventured beyond the abstract aesthetic of her early works into the highly narrative form of opera direction.
Glass’s works are seen frequently in Australia, including his song-cycle to poems by Leonard Cohen and concert performances of his film scores including Koyaanisqatsi. State Opera of South Australia has done productions of his operas, including a new staging of Einstein on the Beach, conducted by Timothy Sexton and with choreography by Leigh Warren.
And there is talk of important productions of Glass’s operas next year: his new opera about Walt Disney, The Perfect American, is due to come to the Brisbane Festival.
But Einstein holds a special place in operatic history and performance. It may be less the ‘‘ shooting star’’, as Wilson describes his projects — fabulous one-offs — than a festival piece that continues to arouse curiosity. The present world tour has been extended as dates have been added. Some cities in the US are seeing it for the first time, including Los Angeles, where it goes after Melbourne.
While Glass, Wilson and Childs are no longer directly involved in the performances, the collaborators can look back on Einstein on the Beach as an expression of their younger selves. Glass says the piece hasn’t aged since they first did it in 1976.
‘‘ It was Bob’s idea that we would retire from it: it was a very good decision,’’ he says. ‘‘ As soon as we gave it to younger people, it was like we were looking at ourselves, 30 years later. You don’t want to have a bunch of people in their 60s and 70s doing Einstein, you just don’t have the energy to do it.
‘‘ The exciting thing for us is to see the piece launched with a different generation.’’
A scene from Einstein on the
Beach, above; the opera’s creators Robert Wilson and Philip Glass, left
Top, left, and below left, scenes from