‘Einstein on Beach,’ At LA Opera, Worthy of Legend

A scene from 'Einstein on the Beach,' music of Philip Glass, direction by  Robert Wilson, choreography by Lucinda Childs 2012-13 world tour (Leslie-Spinks)
A scene from ‘Einstein on the Beach,’ music of Philip Glass, direction-design by Robert Wilson, choreography by Lucinda Childs.
The 1976 opera is enjoying a world tour with the original creators as producers. (Lesley Leslie-Spinks)

By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES — As the audience filed noisily into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Oct. 11, the opera had already begun. Bass notes from an electric organ could be heard under the din, and part of the cast was already assembled onstage. Moreover, the audience was invited to come and go as it pleased throughout the evening. Some, but by no means most, did.

(Lucie Jansch)
Sprightly choreography of Lucinda Childs.  (Lucie Jansch)

All of the above was according to plan – and definitely not business-as-usual at Los Angeles Opera. It was, at long last, the Los Angeles premiere of a legend, Philip Glass’ and Robert Wilson’s convention-shattering Einstein on the Beach – and as such, had more than local significance going for it.

In hosting an extension of the Einstein tour that began with previews in Ann Arbor, MI, in 2012, L.A. Opera became the first opera company to make Einstein a part of its season. And it may well be the last time in North America in which the original creators – Glass, Wilson, and choreographer/writer Lucinda Childs – will have a hand in producing it (as all are in their 70s).

Most importantly, Einstein more than lived up to its legend.

Strikingly beautiful stage images. (Lucie Jansch)
Strikingly beautiful stage images of Robert Wilson. (Lucie Jansch)

At an uninterrupted four hours and six minutes, Einstein is a theater piece of seemingly scattered segments with no plot per se and acres of repeat signs, but one whose rigorous musical structure becomes clear upon hearing it as a whole. For someone who has never experienced the piece in the theater but who has known – and loved – the music on its two recordings for decades, it was thrilling to see and hear how Wilson’s strikingly beautiful, abstract stage pictures and Childs’ sprightly choreography fuse so tightly with the rhythmically tricky score. It is our generation’s Rite of Spring, a singular burst of imagination that rocked the world in 1976 and still carries the shock of the new in its wake.

Scene from 'Einstein on the Beach' world tour 2012-13 (Lucie Jansch)
Wilson’s visual vocabulary is now familiar to LA Opera. (Lucie Jansch)

And like the Rite, it was a one-off for the composer, for Glass never wrote anything like it again. Like Stravinsky, he had exhausted the possibilities in one work. But this would not necessarily be true for Wilson, for the spare, clean-lined, stunningly-lit, slow-moving or quickly-changing visual vocabulary of this remounting of Einstein was familiar to those who caught his productions of Parsifal and Madama Butterfly at Los Angeles Opera over the past decade.

Having said that the piece still sounds fresh and contemporary in 2013, it’s also pertinent to note that there are aspects of Einstein that remain stuck back in the 1970s – particularly in the nonsense texts, which make references to three of the four Beatles, Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move,” Crazy Eddie (a long-defunct East Coast electronics chain), David Cassidy, etc. But in that sense, Einstein is like The Marriage of Figaro, or Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five records, or the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper – masterworks that are of their time, and yet somehow transcend their time. The keys, I’m convinced, are good musical ideas – and all of these examples are loaded with them.

Violinist Jennifer Koh as Einstein (Lucie Jansch)
Violinist Jennifer Koh as Einstein. (Lucie Jansch)

With Michael Riesman – the world’s only Einstein conductor, having led every performance to date – at the helm, the seven-person Philip Glass Ensemble tirelessly unspooled the arpeggios in the pit. At first, the sound was a problem, the voices lost in a loud electronic fog, but longtime Glass sound designer Kurt Munkacsi apparently got the balances right later on. The bewigged violinist Jennifer Koh played Einstein the observer, perched on a chair to the left, imparting more expression in her playing than her predecessors on recordings. Tenor saxophonist Andrew Sterman sent the “Building” segment unusually deep into the jazz sphere, channeling Gato Barbieri and John Coltrane in his scorching solo. Everything – the acting in the stylized Wilson manner, the dancing, the transitions – flowed fluidly.

The train segment as metaphor in 'Einstein on the Beach' world tour 2012-13. (Lucie Jansch)
‘Einstein’s images are left unexplained. (Lucie Jansch)

Ultimately, Einstein invites viewers to see it through their own perceptions. Some get off on the arch humor and whimsy, some see a parable on how Albert Einstein’s findings led to space travel and the horror of atomic war. For me, the five-chord pattern that launches in the “Train” segment in Act I and comes to a mighty apotheosis in “Spaceship” near the end is the big message. It joyously proclaims the triumph of tonality over the crabbed serialism that still dominated contemporary music in 1976. Those reverberations may have had the longest-lasting influence of all.

Performances of Einstein at the L.A. Opera ended Oct. 13 but the tour resumes in January in Paris. For details, click here.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide.