The Einstein Revolution on the Beach

Spotlights 04.03.2021

Einstein on the Beach is a monument. 

It is one of the few contemporary operas to have the privilege of entering the repertoire through the main door, and to be regularly staged since its premiere on 25 July 1976 at the Festival d'Avignon. This work is the fruit of the collaboration of two eminent representatives of the New York avant-garde, the composer Philip Glass (born in 1937), one of the founding fathers of repetitive music - even if he does not appreciate this label - and Robert Wilson (born in 1941), director of experimental theatre. The creative team is not limited to these two names, as it also includes choreographer Andy de Groat and dancer Lucinda Childswho will rewrite the choreography for subsequent productions.

Absolutely everything in Einstein on the Beach is off the charts.

The length of the show, already, plunges the audience into nearly 5h30 of performance without an intermission. The music starts the moment they enter the opera house and takes their seats, and it almost never stops until the end. The audience can freely choose to leave or return whenever they wish.

The libretto, then, is largely written by a fifteen-year-old autistic teenager, Christopher Knowles, with whom Bob Wilson worked for a long time. There is no narrative to support this immense edifice, and virtually nothing in it refers directly to the famous physicist who gives it its title, Albert Einstein. Knowles wrote twelve chapters of a confusing libretto, poetic but without a thread, responding to the director's insistence that he write about this character. Glass and Wilson had first hesitated to choose between Hitler or Chaplin, before deciding on Einstein, about whom they felt they should tell nothing, as his fame made any biographical reference unnecessary. So he is present in the opera only in winks: a first tableau that begins on a steam train while the last one ends in a spaceship; references to numbers, astronomy, chemistry and time measurement that dot the sets; the geometric figures that fascinated the young student in his early days; a violin soloist dressed as in a famous photograph of the scientist-musician; and stage costumes all based on another famous shot of the physicist in his Princeton office: wide dark trousers held up by suspenders, white blouse, tennis shoes and wristwatch. A few texts by Lucinda Childs and Samuel M Johnson, one of the dancers in the troupe, complete Knowles' libretto.

The staging, based on three mathematically treated themes (train, trial and spaceship, declined in all their possible associations), is arranged in four acts and five articulations. It is entirely based on drawings, which Wilson, also a visual artist, drew before any other form of reflection. They inspire paintings of striking dreamlike beauty, drowned in the director's speciality of blue and subtle lighting effects, which form a whole with the repetitive choreographies written by de Groat and then by Childs. The show oscillates between ecstatic serenity and Kafkaesque madness. Each participant - musician, dancer, actor, singer, chorister - is above all a performer in many different roles, and this is also one of the major characteristics of the work, which saw Philip Glass himself play the electronic organ in the orchestra for this musical marathon.

Einstein on the Beach. Эйнштейн на пляже. Роберт Уилсон и Филип Гласс. from Форма агентство в on Vimeo.

The music, finally, marks the culmination of Philip Glass' most radical minimalist and repetitive period. Inspired by his discovery of Indian music in the 1960s, with Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha, but also by his love of rock, jazz and clear, identifiable processes, it oscillates between monotony and surprise, leading the listener into a hypnotic ecstasy lasting several hours. The only lyrics are numbers or notes in incantatory formulas with haunting rhythms. Moving from long, soaring tracks to thunderous, jouissive climaxes, the show leads to a final nuclear explosion, ending with the glimmer of hope of a simple love text between a man and a woman, written by Samuel M Johnson.

The fear linked to the Cold War and this peace and love response, so marked by the heritage of flower power, themes specific to the seventies, still speak to our time, agitated by new anxieties in the midst of an ecological crisis, between the fear of global warming, rising waters and economic collapse. The music has not lost its topicality either, and responds to a current imperative need to let go. Thus, Einstein on the Beach is now being produced again, and the work is proving that it can live on its own without the anchored vision of Bob Wilson. This is the case in an innovative concert version, set by Germaine Kruip withEnsemble Ictus, Collegium Vocale Gent and Suzanne Vega as the sole narrator, premiered in 2018. The following year, the Grand Théâtre de Genève staged a new production of the opera by Daniel Finzi Pasca.

You can listen to "Avignon, 1976 : Creation of Einstein on the beach" by Philip Glass on France Musique

Guillaume Kosmicki


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