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Einstein on the Beach: A Prematurely Air-Conditioned Opera -- Crashing the Musical Glass Ceiling

So, you know, I was in “a prematurely air-conditioned” opera house to experience composer Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach. Instead of the traditional opera with horned helmets and bronze breastplates I encountered a four hour, four act, nonstop multi-media happening that shatters the musical Glass ceiling of operatic work with new modes of expression. What text there is in this extravaganza of sight and sound first presented in 1976 is mostly spoken word, rather than sung -- this ain’t your granny’s opera by Wagner or Mozart.


Hold onto your seats -- Einstein is probably unlike anything you’ve ever seen and heard before performed live onstage, and this is the first time ever that the experimental piece is being presented in L.A. This technical tour de force uses means of articulation other than linear narrative (think Terrence Malick in a theatrical setting) to express its inner mysterious meanings (whatever they are?). Glass has called Einstein “a free-floating theatrical experience, which apparently had no beginning and no end… profoundly radical.”

Rather than storytelling techniques, Einstein utilizes an intricate blend of dance, lighting, sets amidst much swirling mist that range from the mind bending to the minimal, vocalization and dancing performed by the Lucinda Childs Dance Company and choreographed by Childs, who also contributed to the opera’s spoken text. With the up to eight white T-shirt, beige pants-clad dancers’ whirls and twirls, leaps and bounds, spins and splits, the often joyful choreo often appears to be mere Child’s play.

The music includes solo violinist Jennifer Koh’s riffs and arpeggios performed in Albert’s trademark white fright wig and mustache, as she wails away on the instrument the title character famously had a passion (if not, perhaps, much of a talent) for. David Crowell and Jon Gibson blow mean, respectively, an alto saxophone and soprano sax, and both play the flute. Andrew Sterman also plays the flute, as well as the piccolo, bass clarinet and tenor saxophone. Assistant conductor Mick Rossi tickles the ivories, as does conductor Michael Riesman, music director of the Philip Glass Ensemble. Dan Dryden, the sound supervisor and producer/engineer Dan Bora who does the live sound mix, presumably have their hands -- and ears -- full during this four hour la-la-la lollapalooza.

To this reviewer’s untutored ear, the music ranged from mellifluous Middle Ages Gregorian chants to the cacophonous to Charlie Parker-like jazz solos. The text by Childs, Samuel M. Johnson and Christopher Knowles, who has been diagnosed with autism, is generally spoken, while what singing there is is often pure vocalizing, sans words per se. The singers, sometimes wearing white shirts with suspenders, at times, such as during the opening number, actually perform in the orchestra pit, something this critic has not seen before. The creative keyboards sometimes sound like moog synthesizers and organs. At one point when the music becomes ominous it seemingly references J.S. Bach’s famed 18th century Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.

The psychedelic spectacle is helmed by Glass’ collaborator Robert Wilson, Einstein’s director and set/light designer. The lighting is reminiscent of abstract art and minimalism (Wilson’s drawings, designs and installations have been internationally exhibited). Use your opera glass to see the clocks with the hands that move backwards. In one scene a long horizontal box or bar of light slowly lifts until it is completely vertical -- which could be a great Viagra ad. In any case, a traditionalist might be tempted to dub this Texan the wacko from Waco, but that would be unfair as there’s decidedly a method to Wilson and Glass’ musical method.

So what’s it all about, Albie? In some of its finest vignettes Einstein on the Beach has the elegance of physics as it evokes Albert Einstein and his creative process. There are some spoken references to the title character and his having lived in the Swiss capital of Bern, and an image or two of Einstein is projected. (When I visited Bern in 2012 I visited the superb Einstein Museum; downstairs from an apartment where he lived is a coffee shop, and I wondered if I drank a cup of java there if it would make me brainier?) At one point, in the orchestra pit, the Glass Ensemble mimes brushing their teeth and then the vocalists stick their tongues out -- probably a reference to a well known if odd photo of the man renowned as a genius.

In what could be considered the second scene a man with a red shirt (tenor Tomas Cruz) is seen calculating in front of lights arranged, a bit, like a Piet Mondrian painting. In a reference to the beach a woman picks up a seashell (mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn performs this recurring leitmotif) and a boy (perhaps Jasper Newell represents young Albert?) is atop a metallic tower. A locomotive appears on the set, amidst references to another moving object, a sailboat, as the protagonist (such as he is in this mind blowing work) seems to be working out scientific and mathematical equations. At other times the physicist’s calculations take on a religious dimension, as Einstein -- who said he believed in “the god of Spinoza” -- explores the universe’s absolutes. Thus Glass and Wilson take the awestruck aud through the inner workings of the brilliant mind that rendered the immortal formula E=MC2, as math meets mysticism.


An elaborate, stylized courtroom set appears in a trial scene, and later reappears. What does it all mean? Is it a reference to Einstein’s trials and tribulations? After all, for much of his childhood Einstein was misunderstood and even thought to be “slow.” (Glass knows something of the vicissitudes of genius-hood, having had to be a hack, driving a cab down Manhattan’s mean streets in order to pay the bills.) Early in the first courtroom scene performers raise their arms -- is it a reference to the Nazis’ stiff armed “sieg heil” salute? The Jewish Einstein became a refuge and fled Europe, as Adolph’s loss became Princeton’s gain. In a later scene a figure is glimpsed in the window of a painted brick building that is probably Princeton, as admirers below are shown in a freeze frame, perhaps worshipping the genius in, literally, an ivy tower.

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The trial set reappears with a brilliant if simply rendered prison motif. It is during this baffling scene that a “witness” (featured performer Kate Moran) repeats about 40 times a phrase that begins “I was in a prematurely air-conditioned supermarket” (which, according to production notes, Childs concocted). This seems to be a chilling critique of the consumer society and materialism, with a nod towards Henry Miller’s book The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, his scathing metaphor for America.

During this scene there’s also a reference to political prisoner Patty Hearst. Indeed, Einstein abounds with 1970s allusions -- to the Beatles, to Sammy Davis Jr.’s hit about the tap dancer Bojangles and much more. During a courtroom sequence a pseudo-feminist screed is let loose, either lampooning “women’s libbers” or parodying male chauvinist pigs. (Hey reader, your guess is as good as mine, but I prefer the latter explanation.)

[PLOT SPOILER ALERT.] Perhaps the most telling seventies reference is to what may be a rocket ship or a nuclear missile, as an atomic apocalypse unfolds amidst a brilliantly designed set (somewhat evocative of Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece Metropolis) -- after all, Einstein is widely regarded to be one of those scientists who paved the way for splitting the atom. The opera’s title may be a reference to the 1959 anti-nuclear war movie by Stanley Kramer, On the Beach. This is followed by a plea for that most seventies of themes: The need for peace and love, as a modern train appears, to complete the opera’s psychedelic circle.

Some audience members will hate and other love this lengthy visual and aural odyssey -- call it “the theory of relativity.” Many theatergoers will bridle at the enigmatic Einstein’s repetitions and perplexities, as well as its duration minus intermissions, which led LA Opera to include an inset in the program advising ticket buyers “to leave and re-enter the auditorium quietly as needed.” A screen was set up near a concession stand so viewers/ listeners could continue observing the onstage action (or lack of) while taking a much-needed break.


Under the guise of his parodic persona P.D.Q. Bach, Peter Shickele wrote Einstein on the Fritz, to parody his Juilliard classmate Glass. Others might recommend that interrogators at Gitmo deprive hungry Al-Qaeda suspects of food and bathroom breaks and force them to sit through the entire four hour performance, in order to break them. A wag might say that the reason why there are no intermissions is to try to limit the number of spectators who once they leave their seats will flee the opera house. (20% of the aud fled the 1970s premiere at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Opera, and truth be told, a number of those who left their seats during the LA Opera production never returned.)

But for those intrepid souls who relish that Monty Python admonition -- “And now, for something completely different” -- who stay to the not-so-bitter end, Einstein may loom as a dazzling revelation of the senses. At the grand finale, as Glass, Wilson, the multi-culti cast and crew took their well-earned bows the majority of those at the Dorothy Chandler who’d remained rose and gave Einstein a standing ovation (perhaps they were applauding a bit for their own endurance).

As for your weary yet euphoric reviewer, I’m not actually sure what it all meant, but that made me revel in this eye-and-ear-opener all the more. It doesn’t take an Einstein to love Einstein on the Beach.

ed rampell

Einstein on the Beach is being performed Saturday Oct. 12 at 6:30 p.m. and on Sunday, Oct. 13 at 2:00 p.m. by LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. For more info: (213)972-8001; Robert Wilson presents “John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing” on Tuesday, Oct. 15 at 8:00 p.m. at Royce Hall, UCLA. For info see here. In January 2014 the current tour of Einstein on the Beach that began in 2012 will end with performances in Paris on Jan. 8, 10-12.

Ed Rampell

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The new book co-authored by L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell, "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book", published by Honolulu's Mutual Publishing, drops Nov. 25.