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EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH

Opera as we DON’T know it…

“Imagination will get you everywhere.” - Albert Einstein

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In 1976, the creators of “Einstein On the Beach” did to opera what Einstein did to physics (and our understanding of the universe): stood it on its head, or so it seemed.

One of the great attractions of “Einstein on the Beach” to us here in FanFaire, where music and science enjoy a natural convergence, is the very concept of using Einstein, the only scientist to enjoy rock star celebrity in our time (and perhaps for all time!), as the inspiration, or more accurately the avatar, for a 20th century opera that has turned out to be both a game-changer and an artistic masterpiece.

Einstein was both–more than any of the other historical figures considered as potential subjects for the opera. He was THE “universal” game-changer. The crumbs from the rich table of scientific theories drawn from his brilliant thought-experiments are still winning Nobel prizes for today’s physicists, and the kernels of his profound ideas continue to be seed starters for ever more amazing technologies that can for better or worse, depending on how we humans use them, both simplify and complexify our lives. And although not without flaw, he was a masterpiece of a human being who regarded world peace as the loftiest of goals, and placed art–most especially music of which he was a devoted and well-versed amateur practitioner–in the same exalted place as science on the altar of human achievement. Indeed, he wrote and lived by these words, which are among our many favorites: “The greatest scientists are always artists as well.”

einstein-glass-wilson-childs-300Just as Einstein’s mind-warping but verifiable theories liberated scientific thinking from Isaac Newton’s 17th-century formulations of the forces that control our directly observable world, the unbounded creative synergies of Robert Wilson (stage director), Philip Glass (composer), and Lucinda Childs (choreographer) freed the art form known as opera from its likewise 17th-century definitions.

Einstein’s equations provided the framework–and still does–within which one could construct many different model universes: from the microcosm of elementary particles to the vast, mysterious infinities of inter- and extragalactic space of quarks, stellar explosions and black holes, where time dilates, space curves, and light bends. Einstein’s famous equations unveiled new cosmological landscapes, but they did not exactly demolish Newton’s Laws (which, un-negated by Einstein’s theories, remain valid for the world of our daily experience).

In much the same way, as the video trailer below from LA OPERA (where the “Einstein” tour ends this season) shows, “Einstein on the Beach” challenged–and still does–all our entrenched notions about opera, and by so doing opened up new vistas for the contemporary creators of opera, giving them the green light to experiment, and perhaps even lending impetus to the rise of often derided “regie theater”. But it did not wipe out the conventions of opera, and one could reasonably assume that it wasn’t the creators’ intent to do so. Verdi and Puccini, even Handel, still reign in the hierarchy of operas.

So, yes, in “Einstein”, the basic elements of opera are still all there: music (by an orchestra), words (acted and sung, at times spoken in intervals, by soloists and often a chorus), scenery, dance.  But it eschewed:

  • structured narrative or plot but NOT theme or leitmotif–in terms of visual, vocal, and musical allusions to modern times (in scenes depicting criminal justice, current events, etc.) and to Einstein’s legacy (in scenes symbolic of technology–train, spaceship, building, nuclear holocaust);
  • arias but NOT text–in the form of syllables, words, phrases or sentences acted and sung (as number sequences or solfege), or recited (in changing or fixed, repetitive rhythms and alternately expanding and contracting patterns);
  • a traditional orchestra but NOT a musical ensemble (of synthesizers, woodwinds, and solo violin playing iterative permutations/progressions of Glass’ almost mathematical music of inventive notes and chords, the voices of multitasking dancer-singers replacing the usual cast of sopranos, tenors and baritones)…     all these nonlinearities in the music and the action happening amid stunning stage sets and lighting effects that over three production revivals (1984, 1992, 2012) have continually evolved, incrementally accelerating in the manner of Einstein’s expanding universe, toward a state NOT of uncontrolled chaos but of visually satisfying perfection; and
  •  designated INTERMISSIONS in favor of do-it-yourself (DIY) breaks [A CAVEAT: "Einstein on the Beach", Philip Glass' first opera, is also his l-o-n-g-e-s-t. More than four hours without intermission is an endurance test by any measure, not unlike Wagner's landmark operas before him. But even in this matter, the composer flaunts the rules. The audience can make their own intermissions, even as the show goes on; although it's best to take your rest or snack stops during the "knee plays" that "join" the acts.]

Below is a video of scenes from the LA Opera production

Whether Wilson and company intended it or not, there is a semblance of context in the work’s one constant–the almost omnipresent avatar of Einstein playing his favorite instrument, the violin (always portrayed in all of the work’s incarnations by a guest soloist),  as if reminding the audience that:

  • the seemingly disconnected scenes that make up the four acts  being witnessed on stage is a theatrical embodiment of the simple but all-encompassing equation that every literate human can recite: E=mc: bodies/matter releasing packets/waves of creative energy passed on and conceivably absorbed by an increasingly befuddled audience that would slowly be mesmerized by the work’s mysterious eruptions of sound and light, and four and 1/2 hours later walk out of the hall in a totally hypnotic state, certain, without knowing exactly why, that the work is a masterpiece of relativity: it can mean nothing, it can mean something–it all depends on what each audience member makes of it; and
  • to this date, the quest continues for Einstein’s holy grail, the “Unified Field”  that would unify the complexities of the forces governing the universe.  [Will the quest succeed? Who knows? Einstein himself humbly stated: “We still do not know one thousandth of one percent of what nature has revealed to us." Also,  "We see a universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws, but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.”]

Below, an extended video of how “Einstein on the Beach” changed the world of opera forever:

 
So, would Einstein have approved of “Einstein”.   Overall, as a creative enterprise and a daring product of the artistic imagination, there can be no question that Einstein (the physicist who at age 16 imagined himself chasing after a light beam) would have. But Einstein, the amateur violinist with deeply conservative musical tastes, who worshipped Bach and adored Mozart and valued palpable structure in music, would perhaps have done so with only a modicum of enthusiasm.

Long and short, based on all that we’ve heard and read: “Einstein on the Beach” is a theatrical experience like no other! So, if you can’t wait to take your seat in the audience like us, be prepared to just sit back and unroll your mind as if it were a blank canvas; or let it wander, devoid of preconceived notions, like Einstein’s fertile mind, across a vast expanse of fictional beach, “get lost” and give free rein to your imagination. Didn’t Einstein also say  ”Imagination is more important than knowledge” and “Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere”? The creators of “Einstein”, which remains as fresh as when it first saw the light of day, prove that it is so.

Addendum:

1. There is a political aspect to Einstein’s rock star fame (unusual for a scientist, though much deserved) which derives in part from the famous letter he wrote to President Roosevelt on the instigation of concerned fellow scientists but much against his pacifist ideals, urging the government to support work on atomic energy to counter what was then feared to be a potential but likely threat of Nazi Germany unleashing an atomic bomb on the civilized world. A year after the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Einstein expressed his regret over writing the letter which was his only “direct” role in building the bomb: “I made one great mistake in my life…” Contrary to popular belief, he was not directly involved in the actual building of the atomic bomb. The atomic bomb did not travel a straight line from E=mc. Rather, his equations were used as a theoretical tool for understanding the destructive power of fissionable materials AFTER THE FACT. As often happens even today, the development of the technology preceded the understanding of the science behind it, even if as it was in this case, the science had been around for decades. This point is brought up here to alert audience members to NOT make a direct link between Einstein and the bomb as can be inferred from the opera’s nuclear holocaust scene (and as implied in the TIME Magazine cover of July 1, 1946).

2. Unlike Einstein, perhaps the only truly substantive figure to maintain rock star celebrity status even in death, “Einstein on the Beach”, staged only three times (1976, 1984, 1992) before this 2012-2013 international tour–all by the original creators–is esteemed by and remains known only to aesthetes.  Also realistically, the three Los Angeles performances of October 11, 12, and 13 may be the last time audiences in North America see “Einstein on the Beach” with the original creators, now in their seventies, still around  and involved in the production,  unless of course the work’s revival occurs more frequently than every decade or two. [The tour's last stop will be in Paris, with performances on January 8, 10-12, 2014.] The Philip Glass Ensemble is the only band to have ever played the music, which took Glass a couple of decades to publish a score. Granted, no opera ever attains rock star ranking, and “Einstein” almost four decades from its birth, remains avant-garde. But is it too far-fetched to imagine “Einstein” making it to the standard operatic repertoire, the way Richard Strauss’ Salome and Elektra or Alban Berg’s Wozzeck have? Or, having been staged only by its creators, will “Einstein” die a natural death with their creators’ eventual passing? Not if it were made more accessible to this generation’s theater-going public (via less astronomically high ticket prices?), giving them the opportunity to experience music-theater of the highest order. But if it is allowed to remain solely fare for the aesthete, then what has been acclaimed as a 20th century masterpiece might be sadly relegated to a footnote or a laudatory paragraph in tomorrow’s history books. While Albert Einstein lives on, iconized on t-shirts for all ages, and continues to speak, avant-garde, from the grave.
- © 2013 Gloria Cajipe / FanFaire

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