Einstein on the Beach 1976 - 2014
Jacqueline Caux What were your impressions of the recent revival of Einstein on the Beach, an opera that premiered in 1976? Stéphane Malfettes My initial reaction was a physical one. I felt the same thing the first time I went to Bayreuth, when the opening notes of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman began to reverberate through space. For me, this was much more a physical experience than a mystical one. It was the same with Einstein on the Beach. We feel the essence of the opera in our bodies; the musical and visual vibrations reach into our very depths. In this production, Robert Wilson, Philip Glass and Lucinda Childs truly embrace the opera’s somewhat insane form. There’s always this false debate about whether or not this work is really an opera. For me, Einstein on the Beach is physically an opera! J. C. That’s true, but in 1976 there were so many new things in this work, so many things that went beyond the concept of opera as I understood it and were more like performance, at a unique level, of course, because performance art was more succinct and underground back then. Then there was the fact that the concept of process, which had emerged in the late 1960s, and was more talked about in the visual arts than music, was fully embodied in this piece, before my very eyes. There was no longer any boundary between a work in progress and a finished work. For me, this questioning of a work in the course of its realization, the way that this was put on public display, this opera with no libretto— only notes and rhythms are sung—was the most avant-garde thing I could imagine. And at that time Wilson’s work with light was a brilliant patchwork. It was long before the digital age! When he brought the technicians onstage to be applauded along with the singers and musicians, we could see the jubilation on their faces. They had outdone themselves. Once again, the theatrical machinery in the flies was made visible. The old hierarchies were turned upside down. S. M. I like the way you use the word “performance.” We always feel it when a piece takes performance to a higher level today, even if technological developments have had an impact on this aspect. Along with everything else, Einstein on the Beach is a great show. We’ve come a long way from the improvisation and amateurism of the early days. For the first revival, in 1984, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, it was very hard for the singers, musicians and choreographers to recreate the micro-details of a score that was first produced very spontaneously. Wilson’s creative process is still intuitive and artisanal, at least when he’s in full spate. But did we perceive this “amateur” side to this work back then?
A METICULOUSLY PLANNED WORK
J. C. That’s not the right word. It’s true that the people involved had not yet achieved official recognition, but they weren’t amateurs. Philip Glass’s musicians and choral singers rehearsed for months; their every movement was precisely plotted. There was something typically American about the approach, not fearing to rely on people without established reputations and then working with them in such an intense and demanding fashion that they end up achieving something totally professional. As I’ve always said, when it comes to repetitive music the slightest error is forbidden, because mistakes are immediately apparent. What was very special about Einstein on the Beach was that each of its creators worked independently following guidelines Wilson had defined. They only got together once a week. S. M. Their method of working was the opposite of the traditional logic, where an opera begins with the writing of a libretto, followed by the composition of the music and finally the staging. Wilson started out by making sketches of what would become key scenes. Glass wrote musical sequences corresponding to the durations Wilson specified. When they were all done with their respective contributions, the pieces were put together. J. C. Right. Glass would adapt the music, making it a few measures longer or shorter, to get exactly what he wanted. The authors saw the work as a whole for the first time at the same time as the public, did, at the 1976 debut. S. M. This process was the same way that John Cage and Merce Cunningham used to work together. Wilson very clearly acknowledges the influence of the composer of