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Einstein on the Beach is notorious as the opera that exploded the idea of what an opera could be. And yet it is also unknown, so rarely is it performed. That unknownness likely applies even if you’re aware it’s a nearly five-hour immersive experience employing the following: dancers from the Lucinda Childs company, non-narrative staging and direction by Robert Wilson, and one of composer Philip Glass’s early masterpieces of minimalist music. You might also have heard it has no intermission and that audience members are allowed to come and go as they please. But until this year, another thing clear to Einstein fans under the age of 40 was that we’d never seen it staged. (It last toured in 1992.) As a consequence, no matter how many times we might have listened to the CD releases of Glass’s music for the opera, we couldn’t really know the piece. We understood, at most, around half of Einstein: the Philip Glass part.
But Einstein is also director Robert Wilson’s piece. As is noted in the documentary Absolute Wilson, Einstein was surely the first opera for which any composer wrote music specifically in response to the original stage-design sketches of a director. Still, even though Wilson’s name is printed up on CD booklets right next to Glass’s name as a co-author of the work, this reality tends to get obscured by the fact that a whole generation of modern-art fans has grown up without being able to see the co-equal theatrical elements of the piece. Some production stills from past revivals exist, giving us an idea of how it has looked; a one-hour documentary from the mid ’80s also gives a sense of how the staging—with its radical-yet-abstract clarity said to have been inspired by Einstein’s own thinking—was intended to move. But immersive is one thing these scant visual aids cannot be.
Einstein is seeing its first New York City revival in two
decades this month, starting September 14 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, during the year of Philip Glass’s 75th birthday. But unlike the other big Glass events this season—the January U.S. premiere of his Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall, the rarely-heard-in-its-entirety “Music in Twelve Parts” the following month at the Park Avenue Armory—what’s most important about Einstein touching down again won’t be about Glass himself, but the contributions of the enigmatic Wilson.
A similar learning curve regarding Einstein has confronted its latest onstage cast, because this 2012 touring revival features a new generation of Wilson interpreters. While many of the musicians in the pit are veterans of the piece, coming as they do from Glass’s own ensemble, all the dancers (and one notable musical soloist) are brand new. And each of the principals offers reams and reams of mystic-sounding praise for their director.
Kate Moran, a dancer playing one of two stage characters who are the co-masters of ceremony through the duration of the opera, explains that when she came to New York for school in the late ’90s, she was in search of the kind of theater that Wilson had been producing for decades. “Bob’s work was just something that we studied,” she says of her time at the Experimental Theatre Wing of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Despite this grounding, when Moran landed what she described as this “dream, iconic gig” she immediately recognized how much about Einstein she had yet to learn. “I had never seen [it],” she says. “In its last incarnation, I was too young. Before we started rehearsals, I went to Lincoln Center and watched as much footage as I could.” But Moran, who has inherited the Lucinda Childs role, says that her archival preparatory work was nothing compared to the actual experience of seeing Einstein for herself, as it was built around her onstage through rehearsals with Wilson.
“He is very intense, and he is very calm,” she says of Wilson. “We would be running through a scene, and he would call out through a microphone: ‘Lift your hand up in 37 seconds and close it slowly, starting with your pinkie finger, for 20 seconds.’ Quite honestly, the way that Bob works is something I really love and enjoy and kind of feel natural inside of—finding that balance between extreme concentration and precision and also breathing inside of that.”
Moran’s twin onstage, Helga Davis, likewise credits Wilson for having a simultaneously rigorous and open vision of this revival, especially when it came to doing away with some of the blinkered approaches to casting to which she’d become accustomed. “The way that I was female was interesting to him. The way that I was black and female was interesting to him. The range of my voice. . . . All of these things that posed tremendous difficulties for people I had auditioned for on Broadway.”
In a similar move, the Korean-American musician Jennifer Koh—known more as an elite modern-music recitalist than a stage animal—was selected to perform the demanding solo violinist’s part onstage, which requires wearing a wig and makeup meant to evoke Einstein’s visage more directly than any other performer in the opera. “A woman had never been cast, certainly never an Asian woman,” Koh says, “and we needed to make sure that it would, you know, work.” But then, as seems to happen for anyone with whom Wilson clicks, undue fidelity to boring old logistics and logic was worked around and never discussed again.
If the best directors are not all that far from cultists—needing to be magnetic enough to inspire some devotional buy-in—then Wilson has done his ritualistic part once again in 2012. Moran, Davis, and Koh share an evident hunger to do right by the piece and its new audience. (And on the music side, Philip Glass Ensemble musical director Michael Reisman says that this year of Glass performances has the group sounding better in this music than they’ve ever sounded before.)
According to Davis, so far on their 2012 tour, a similar desire to absorb the full Einstein education has been displayed by audiences, too. “This idea of going out [of the theater] and coming back in is completely lost on this generation,” she says of the come-and-go freedom made explicit before the five-hour performance begins. “Everybody wants to see every moment of it.”
Nor does the endurance test leave a performer unchanged. “When you do something that lasts for almost five hours, to go back into a piece that’s an hour or an hour and 15, I kind of giggle,” Davis says. “Like: ‘Ah, y’all are a bunch of pussies! I’ve been sitting here for five hours. What? An hour? An hour and 15 minutes? What the fuck!'” she says with some laughter.
More seriously, though, Davis notes how the experience of Einstein on the Beach has changed the way she lives through the time span of more traditional works—and adds that it has changed her day-to-day approach to life. On many available accounts, it sounds as though the greatest teaching Einstein can do involves sitting and watching for its whole duration, rather than just listening to a CD. And for the first time in a long time in New York, there are some open seats available for the class. September 14–23, BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, bam.org