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Of its own time and space: Einstein on the Beach alights onto the LA Opera stage in memorable fashion

Einstein on the Beach - Trial (briefcase) (cropped)

Let’s see . . . how best to put this . . .

Einstein on the Beach is like ice cream. Or sex. Or Yosemite. Or that famously stinky flower that blooms at The Huntington.

You can read or hear descriptions, see pictures, even watch videos, but none of these come anywhere close to experiencing what it’s truly like in person. And like those four other worldly pleasures, Einstein gives you an overwhelming urge to experience it again and again — even if bits of it can be tedious, disappointing, and even annoying.

And so it was for a few of these days, my friends, when director Robert Wilson, composer Philip Glass, and choreographer Lucinda Childs brought the latest revival of their landmark opera to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The good folks at Los Angeles Opera presented this “major opera company” premiere, a too-brief three performance run beginning with last Friday night’s opening. It is part of a multi-city tour of this production, reportedly the last Einstein on the Beach in which the three original creative leads will be involved.

Wilson - Glass - Childs

It is noteworthy that the director’s name is listed before the composer’s (with Ms. Childs’ name coming third in smaller font). Quick: name the stage director of the original production of Don Giovanni, Turandot, or Wozzeck. . . . good luck without googling it. Opera is inherently a form of musical theater, with music usually taking pride of place. Not so here. Mr. Glass’s music provides an important and compelling backbone for the evening but is not the primary driving force. Instead, Mr. Wilson’s eye-popping set design — unapologetically formalist, recognizable yet still ambiguous, and laden with disjointed, dream-like qualities — is what makes this opera such an arresting experience.

Einstein is at its best when it gives the audience imagery and symbolism that can be appreciated on various levels.

  • You can just sit back and admire the visual play: the “Trial” scene is a feast of evolving geometric complexity as simple shapes become a courtroom; “Bed” provides the slowest of burns as a rectangle of light crawls from a horizontal position to a vertical one, all while a soprano sings an aria.
  • Knee Play 3You can have fun picking out the various references to Albert Einstein’s concepts compared and contrasted with traditional Euclidian space: a train moves forward and back (in space? in time?); in “Trial,” a small clock runs backwards in the foreground while a larger hand-less clock (with anatomically correct stick figures slyly providing the hour markers) becomes eclipsed in the background; in “Knee Play 3” and later in “Spaceship,” lines and circles blink on and off until they begin to resemble trace patterns from collisions in a particle accelerator; throughout the opera, Mr. Wilson’s obsession with light echoes the physicist’s Nobel Prize-winning work on the photoelectric effect.
  • You can get philosophical: During the “Trial/Prison” scene, could the jailed couple juxtaposed with the woman reciting the famous “prematurely air-conditioned super-market” monologue while writhing around on a courtroom bed actually be a social commentary on how we as a nation are handcuffed by our relentless consumerism? Are the two featured performers praying to Mecca when the large scrim of a nuclear explosion comes down behind them? (Note that in the 1984 production, the poses are subtly — but non-trivially — different).
Comparing the end of the

Comparing the end of the “Spaceship” scene: left, Lucinda Childs and Sheryl Sutton (1984); right, Kate Moran and Helga Davis (2012-2013)

I preferred to avoid intellectual speculation, choosing instead to revel in the aesthetics of it all. This works quite beautifully most of the time, mixing stark performance art with moments of humor, even unabashed silliness. And while 4+ hours of operatic mind-f**k unhampered by intermissions creates some real physical and mental difficulties, there is enough space and time in each scene — and the so-called “Knee Plays” connecting them together — to let one’s mind contemplate the scenery and the music as much or as little as each individual is wont to do.

You don’t even need to know much of anything about Einstein the man to appreciate Einstein the opera. As the director stated in the documentary film, Einstein on the Beach: The Changing Image of Opera:

“It doesn’t tell a story, it’s not a narrative form, it’s not something that’s trying to illustrate the way history books do Einstein, but it’s trying to present a poetical interpretation of this man. . . . We come to the theatre sharing something, knowing something about this mythic god who is known generally by the man on the street. Just as Racine wrote about gods of his time or Euripides wrote about the gods of his time, in a sense, Einstein is like a mythic character: he’s someone that is generally known by the public. . . . So in a sense, we don’t have to tell a story; we can present a piece of poetry in which people bring to the theater a certain knowledge when they see these pictures.” (Robert Wilson)

Albert Einstein is the opera’s “MacGuffin,” like the titular Maltese Falcon of the famous film: a dramatic device around which everything turns but is not in-and-of-itself critical to the theatrical goings-on. Sure, the famous physicist makes appearances in brief projected images and, more noticeably, as a violin wielding virtuoso hovering in a chair above the floor of the orchestra pit just below the foot of the stage (Jennifer Koh played the role and its demanding solo part with distinction).

Glass’s music has its own Einsteinian, relativistic qualities: what seems to be “just” repeating patterns are actually fiendishly complex parts that are never played quite the same way twice; aural clouds of apparent randomness are, in truth, intricate structures. There are subversive elements as well: the simple counting that opens the opera goes askew after a few bars; later, solfège syllables are sung on the “wrong” intervals.

To make all of it work in a seamless, compelling way is a magnificent feat, and the musicians of the Philip Glass Ensemble, along with the excellent chorus, should be commended for their impeccable precision and musicality. Kudos too to the members of the Lucinda Childs Dance Company, both for their exacting pantomime peppered throughout the opera as well as their athletic jumps and turns during the two “Dance” scenes (even if the second of which seemed to go on for . . . waaaay . . . tooooo . . . looooooooong).

Einstein on the Beach - Kate Moran as the Witness in %22Trial - Jail%22 Scene

Taking the spotlight for much of the night were the two “Featured Performers,” Helga Davis and Kate Moran. Ms. Moran, in particular, imbued her recitations of Christopher Knowles’s words with just the right amount of inflection to evoke an artificially intelligent 21st Century cellphone assistant without ever allowing it to devolve into a caricature. Her portrayal of the Witness during “Trial/Jail” was a tour de force of nuance, vocal and physical flexibility, and timing: she repeats the signature phrase about a “prematurely air-conditioned supermarket” dozens of times, but never quite the same way twice — often sexy, sometimes a little sinister, and always spot-on. I was smitten.

Einstein on the Beach feels so much like it’s part of an alternate dimension that when the various 1970’s references appear, they jarringly pull an otherwise floating, timeless piece into a very specific era. David Cassidy, members of The Beatles, and Mr. Bojangles are repeatedly mentioned. The transformation of woman in a white dress and pearl necklace into a rifle-toting moll is a distinct reference to Patty Hearst — a reference which becomes increasingly less relevant with each passing decade. Most of that can be forgiven and some of it is quite funny despite being outdated, yet it is disorienting nonetheless.

The only real problem for me was the opera’s ending. First, the climax of “Spaceship” — which, in turn, is the climax of the whole opera — is a heavy-handed disappointment: a man frenetically dancing in the dark with flashlights in hand is eventually revealed to have a disfigured Phantom-of-the-Opera-like face; soon after, the aforementioned massive scrim depicting a nuclear blast drops from the rafters, and, um . . . Remember that moment early in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home when you tell yourself, “Really?! This is just a big ‘Save the Whales’ flick?” That’s how I felt when the scrim is revealed and I thought, “Wait — did 250 minutes of stunning theatrical imagery and symbolism really just devolve into a 1970’s anti-nuke protest?”

Einstein on the Beach - end of %22Spaceship%22 scene

Yet as annoying as “Spaceship” was, the denouement of the “Knee Play 5” scene was even more troubling. With its story-telling bus driver sprinkling thinly veiled biblical references amidst talk of lovers kissing, the moment was unnaturally proscriptive — as if to say, “I know there are nuclear weapons in the world, but can’t we all just get along?” If “Spaceship” was Star Trek IV, the bus driver of “Knee Play 5” was the unnecessarily saccharine Sixteen Candles-style ending tacked onto the American release of the 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice. It was downright annoying, and left a cloying final taste in my mouth as I walked out of the hall.

Thankfully, within minutes, I began thinking of bathing caps and contact lenses and boys throwing paper planes from tall towers and jurors pulling coffee out of bags in unison and “do re mi fa sol” and “2-3-4-5-6-7-8” — the sounds and images of Einstein on the Beach that will forever linger with me and make me want to see it again. And again. These are the days, my friends.

Random other thoughts:

  • Among the many luminaries in attendance on opening night was Frank Gehry. The famous architect is partnering with Mr. Wilson (a former architecture student himself) in the design of the planned Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C. The visionary concept — non-traditional yet subdued — is, unsurprisingly, facing some opposition. The two gentleman might be celebrated in some circles, but controversy still follows them. Let’s pray and hope that this magnificent design finally gets built.
  • Also in attendance on Friday were Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. Really. Apparently, the couple truly did what they could to keep a low profile. Of course, as Einstein taught us, all things are relative. For Kanye & Kim, “low profile” involved parking their black Lamborghini in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s loading dock, bringing their own security escort, arriving late, and leaving early. But at least they came. And by all accounts, they enjoyed the performance. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. As Mr. West himself once tweeted: “Classical music is tight yo.”

Einstein on the Beach:

Los Angeles Opera: October 11, 2013; Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

Einstein on the Beach

Robert Wilson — Philip Glass

Choreography by Lucinda Childs

Spoken Text by Christopher Knowles / Samuel M. Johnson / Lucinda Childs

running for three performances: October 11 – 13, 2013
Principal Performers
Einstein/Solo Violinist: Jennifer Koh
Featured Performer: Helga Davis
Featured Performer: Kate Moran
Boy: Jasper Newell
Mr. Johnson: Charles Williams
Soprano solo in “Bed” scene: Hai-Ting Chinn
Creative Team
Composer: Philip Glass
Director / Set & Light Design: Robert Wilson
Choreographer: Lucinda Childs
Co-Director: Ann-Christin Rommen
Directing Associate: Charlie Otte
Lights: Urs Schoenebaum
Scenic Supervisor: Michael Deegan
Sound Supervisor: Dan Dryden
Costumes: Carlos Soto
Hair & Makeup: Campbell young Associates: Luc Verschueren
Philip Anderson, Joe Damon Chappel, Hai-Ting Chinn, Tomas Cruz, Michele A. Eaton, John Kawa, Lindsay Kesselman, Kate Maroney, Solange Merdinian, Gregory R. Purnhagen, Melanie Russell, Jason Charles Walker
Lucinda Childs Dance Company
LCDC Rehearsal Director: Ty Boomershine
Dancers: Katie Dorn, Katherine Helen Fisher, Sarah Hillmon, Anne Lewis, Sharon Milanese, Patrick John O’Neill, Matt Pardo, Lonnie Poupard Jr, Caitlin Scranton, Stuart N. Singer
Alternate: John Sorensen-Jolink
Philip Glass Ensemble
Music Director: Michael Riesman
Musicians: Lisa Bielawa, David Crowell, Dan Dryden, Jon Gibson, Mick Rossi, Andrew Sterman

Produced by Pomegranate Arts, Inc.

Presented by Los Angeles Opera


Photo credits:

  • Robert Wilson, Philip Glass, and Lucinda Childs: courtesy of Pomegranate Arts, Inc.
  • All others: Lucie Jansch

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