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?


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

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