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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Opera - Ein­stein on the Beach,

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

Ein­stein on the Beach

Top, left, and be­low left, scenes from

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