Director and designer Robert Wilson and composer Philip Glass, with choreographer Lucinda Childs, created the opera Einstein on the Beach in 1976. It has been hailed as one of the most revolutionary and visionary works of the late 20th century in the fields of music and theatre: "One of the truly pivotal artworks of our time," "a masterpiece," "an achievement for which the descriptor 'supreme' does not seem the least excessive," "among the most significant theatrical achievements of the entire post-World War II period."
Wilson, Glass, and Childs have come together twice since the premiere, in 1984 and 1992, to re-mount the opera, and last week they were in Ann Arbor, Michigan preparing what will probably be the final iteration of their original conception. The first performances, described as previews, were January 20-22. The official premiere will be in Montpellier, France in March, and over the following 12 months the opera will tour eight other cities.
Einstein on the Beach, which lasts five hours, breaks with most of the conventions of traditional opera and defies easy description. There is no narrative plot; Wilson has said that audience members are free to leave and enter the theatre at will, and whenever they come in, they won't be lost since there is no story to follow. There is no traditional orchestra; the Philip Glass Ensemble, a group of electric keyboards, winds, and percussion provides the music. There are no operatic soloists in the traditional sense; a chorus sings a text made up entirely of numerals and solfège syllables. The only "character" is a violinist dressed as Einstein, whose solos punctuate the proceedings. A company of dancers and actors provide the scenic action, and actors deliver spoken monologues. The opera takes place on Wilson's spectacular set, which is sometimes representational and sometimes abstract.
Repetition is an element common to the work of Wilson, Glass, and Childs and there are long passages in the opera in which apparently little happens musically or dramatically. People who have attended the opera have, with almost spooky consistency, described the transcendence of their experience. After a period of initial boredom in which they perceive little interesting going on in the music or onstage, they have what critic Alex Ross calls the "Aha moment," that can be described as visceral, or mystical, or both, when one suddenly becomes conscious of the richness the opera, and is overwhelmed by it. Einstein's impact lies in its power to create a state of heightened consciousness that can leave audiences with a sense of having been transformed by what they have seen and heard.
The Ann Arbor run has been sold out for weeks, so audiences should plan now if they are interested in attending other performances, which will be in Montpellier (France), Reggio Emilio (Italy), London, Toronto, New York (Brooklyn Academy of Music), Berkeley (CA), Mexico City, Amsterdam, and Hong Kong. The website for the producing company, Pomegranate Arts, lists the schedule for the tour and a description of the production.