There’s probably no piece of modern music or dance that ignites as much excitement as Einstein on the Beach, Philip Glass’s epic 1975 opera. There are a few explanations as to why. For one thing, Einstein has only been staged a handful of times since it was written. And at nearly five hours long, it’s surrounded by an aura of rarefied intensity. Its story—er, sort-of-story—deals with arguably the most important figure of the 20th century. Then there’s the score, which is mystical, gripping, and lovely.
More than anything, there’s something captivating about such a significant composer dealing with such a significant scientist. Director Robert Wilson sums up Einstein’s presence in one interview, saying, "in a sense, there was no reason to tell a story, because we already knew the story. How this man—who was a pacifist—also contributed to the splitting of the atom."
Last week, Einstein returned to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which staged the opera in 1984 and 1992. Most of those lucky enough to snag tickets to the two-week stay (full disclosure: I wasn’t one of them) have never seen Einstein live. Or, as The New York Times puts it, the opera is "more known about than known." In 1976, it premiered in America at the Met, in a one-night-only Sunday performance that left Wilson $150,000 in the hole. At the time, the piece was seen as a piece of "downtown" art, more appropriate for a warehouse than an opera house. In a way, it was the cross-over hit that brought avant-garde theater to Broadway in earnest.
One of the most remarkable things about Einstein is its sets. Over nine months in 1975, Glass and Wilson worked alongside each other, drawing and composing simultaneously. The stages are sparse and architectural, and at certain moments, they seem to lead the music. Massive clock faces descend and ascend, while a smoke-ensconced scaffold supports performers as they scribble invisible proofs on a glowing wall. Einstein’s 20-member cast, dressed in suspenders and work shirts, move to an overwhelming symphony of synthesizers and chanting voices, coalescing around nine 20-minute "knee plays," or semi-acts. They chant numbers and poetry, scrawl notes in the air, and in one scene, brush their teeth (then stick their tongues out, mimicking that photo).
For as fragmented as the opera sounds on paper, it’s a hypnotizing experience. Though guests are free to come and go as they please (there’s no intermission), many report being glued to their seats for the entire five hours. As to the non-narrative plot? It’s fine if you don’t get it. In fact, at the 1992 revival, Wilson sat next to playwright Arthur Miller, who—not realizing who Wilson was—commented "I don’t get it." But, as Wilson explains, "You don’t have to understand anything. You can go and get lost."
Einstein on the Beach will head to Berkeley’s Zellerbach hall next month. Tickets, for the fast-acting, are available here.