In order to avoid reciting a less than satisfactory, Wikipedia synopsis of Einstein on the Beach’s history and critical interpretation, here is the link to the University Musical Society’s summary of the opera: http://www.ums.org/s_current_season/artist.asp?pageid=673.
Now that that is out of the way, I want to reflect on my terrifically incredible experience at this past Friday evening’s spectacular performance (even if it was only a rehearsal) of “Einstein on the Beach.”
Before seeing the opera, I spent a few days pondering the meaning of the title, “Einstein on the Beach.” The title is seemingly ironic: Einstein— a scientific genius— paired with the beach— a contemporary symbol of tranquility and all things chill. Are these two elements compatible? In the minds of Robert Wilson and Philip Glass (along with myself, if my interpretation is correct), these two qualities are very compatible.
Einstein is an icon of pure, abstract thinking, along with representing the ability to think beyond man-made limits or boundaries (my personal favorite Einstein quote— “imagination is more important than knowledge”). Accordingly, the beach is a boundless area (as opposed to the confines of a science laboratory. Can you imagine the alternative— Einstein in the Lab— how dull.) Pairing Einstein with the Beach ironically embodies the genius of Einstein: that is, how Einstein is a character who transcends the traditional symbols and rules of western, America education— school, the lab, formal settings)— and the beach is a perfect setting, one stereotypically atypical of a genius (Einstein’s childhood was stereotypically atypical of a genius. His early teachers told his parents that school was not for him; although, maybe this is just a reflection on the unsatisfactory nature of traditional teaching methods). Finally, similar to Einstein’s anti-traditional, boundless brilliance, the Beach is also boundless (in the opera, there is actually a line in the final scene that reflects upon the infinite nature of the beach and the ocean).
The question going into the opera then, was, would the performance accurately reflect the grand nature of the title. After sitting straight through four and a half hours of opera, I think that it does. Spectacularly, the performance embodies the entire nuance of the title and more. The abstract expression of the performance— from set design, to costume design, to lighting, to the singing, to the music— is meant to give us, the spectator, a glimpse into the limitless mind of Einstein.
While there is not a traditional narrative plot, there is a heavy use of juxtaposing elements to reveal a theme (reminding myself, a film student, about Eisenstein’s theory of montage. I wonder if this ever occurred to the producers). For instance, during the Trial scene one of the judges is a little boy. The juxtaposition of the judge uniform—a symbol of justice— with the tiny boy—a symbol of youthfulness— might signify that our law system (or Einstein’s “jury of peers”) is still “youthful”. Moreover, during this same scene both of the judges absent-mindedly pour random, flour-like substance out of a beaker and onto the table. Here, the juxtaposition of the judges stereotypical costume— symbols of the law— in contrast with the arbitrary pouring of beakers— a symbol of bad science— might represent how the judicial system (in general, or of the academic “judicial system” who initially rejected Einstein’s theory) is a bad science.
Juxtaposing symbols is a technique that recurs throughout the opera, and its use forces the spectator to think abstractly rather than traditionally. While this may seem like an onerous task, it is actually a rewarding and relaxing experience. Through the use of color (white vs. red vs. black), dance (static movement vs. fluid movement), lighting (light vs. dark), music (rich melody vs. dull melody), and set design (minimalist vs. slightly more minimalist), almost every theme is conveyed through the use of symbols. The music highlights the dance (which was brilliantly choreographed by Lucinda Childs), which highlights the set, which highlights the colors, and ultimately this methodology creates an experience that is greater than the sum of its parts. In retrospect, this methodology is reflected in the opera’s motif of the circle— a shape that embodies holistic thinking.
My only concern with “Einstein on the Beach” is that it sanctifies Einstein (making him appear almost godlike, nearly equivalent with a holistic, abstract representation of the universe) to the point where his qualities are seemingly untenable. While there is a character in the opera who plays Einstein (physically showing us a concrete Einstein), the entire time this character is 1) separate from the set, thereby putting Einstein on a different level than the performance, and 2) playing the violin, as if it were the only thing that he cared about. Ultimately, I imagine that Glass, the creator of the opera, see Einstein as a figure who entirely embodies the highest natural form of being (maybe this is too speculative, however?).
Unfortunately, the opera is no longer in Michigan and may not be for a long time (tickets are, I imagine, difficult to get for upcoming performances in New York and Berkeley as well). However, the next time it does come back to Michigan (or a theatre near you), I recommend you go see it.
Finally, in summary, I think that it is the opera’s innovative, abstract use of the elements (instead of the typical reliance on content) that allows the spectator an experience this is simultaneously visceral and intellectually stimulating.