I write this review after seeing Einstein on the Beach at the Los Angeles Opera last night (trailer here). The opera, with music by Philip Glass and visual artist Robert Wilson, is an extravaganza for the mind and senses, and its existence is so unconventional that it is difficult to describe. The opera lasts over four hours without intermission. There are no characters, no plot, and the dialogue consists of numbers, solfedge symbols, and sentences which may initially seem strange or unrelated. The visual elements are stunning, yet move slowly and can seem unconnected. The only recognizable figure is Albert Einstein (played here by Jennifer Koh), who accompanies on his violin as a witness to the drama.
This is my second time seeing Einstein — I was at the premiere in January 2012 in Michigan as well. Sadly, today’s performance is likely the last time Einstein will be performed in North America for a considerable time, as the tour is scheduled to conclude in Paris in January 2014.) Should you find yourself there, of course, by all means attend)!
So what is Einstein actually “about”? Despite its seemingly strange and random sequences, there are clear themes throughout the opera, ideas and issues raised by Einstein’s discoveries and 20th century movements: nuclear destruction, space and time travel, mass media and electronic communication, and women’s rights. It presents a world traumatized by the incongruity of our dynamic, high-tech, mass-produced lives in a universe in which we are unfathomably alone with no discernable meaning. Despite giving few answers, it does suggest that the most important thing we should do in the meantime is to make human connections and to live love.
Perhaps no other opera asks those questions about the meaning of life and our place in the universe better than Einstein on the Beach. It does that in much the same way that La bohème forces us to think about love or South Pacific forces us to confront racism. And because Einstein does it so well, I am convinced it will remain in the modern repertoire for the long term.
That’s not to say that Einstein on the Beach isn’t a little bit strange. It is a weird experience unlike any other common opera, and audience goers should know about that going in. The couple I was sitting next to last night were certainly not prepared for Einstein. About thirty minutes into the opera, the husband leaned over to his wife and asked, “When does it start?” Needless to say, there is certainly a fair number of people who will not like seeing Einstein and may even walk out. I will say, however, that the modern opera community is more unperturbed by its critics are than, say, Wagner fans are of Ring Cycle critics or Mozart opera fans are of those who don’t like Don Giovanni.
I happen to be friends with a cast member and had a good conversation about the future of the opera. It is a tremendous benefit for Einstein that it is being revived now because I think it assures its success in the future. With Glass and Wilson both in their 70s, the next production of Einstein may not occur in their lifetimes. Had it not been revived now, someone in the future would need to try to recreate this opera without its co-creators and much of the cast. Einstein is such a specialized opera that it would be a herculean task, discouraging anybody from even trying. With this production having taken place, I believe Einstein can come back when it’s ready without nearly as much difficulty.
Many times people use the word unique when the circumstances do not call for it — they really should describe something as exceptional or rare. But Einstein is a unique opera. No other opera sounds like nor feels like it, and I doubt no opera ever will. At the same time, Einstein asks questions about the universe that we wrestle with today and likely will in the future. For that reason, I think Einstein may go away soon, but it won’t be gone for long.