If there is such a thing as a big bang of musical theater, it is "Einstein on the Beach" by Robert Wilson and Philip Glass. And now it is showing in Berlin.
On opening night in the House of the Berlin Festival on March 3, the audience couldn't wait to get inside and up close to the music already rising from the orchestra pit. On stage right, two actresses stood endlessly repeating numbers and disjointed sentences such as: "Would it get some wind for the sailboat. And it could get for it is."
The downbeat to the five-hour opera composed by Philip Glass and originally staged by Robert Wilson. "Einstein on the Beach" is considered one of the artistic masterpieces of the 20th century. But although the 1976 world premiere in Avignon was a turning-point in modern musical theater, the work has seldom been performed since then.
The opera can arguably only be properly performed by the Philip Glass Ensemble, on hand in Berlin. Sometimes droning like a strange, repetitive synthesized storm, sometimes floating on soft woodwind tones, the music always displays a hypnotic power. As the chorus sings syllables in an endless loop, the dancers seemingly compulsively repeat their movements over and over again while brightly illuminated objects create powerful flashes or float across the set. For director Robert Wilson, light signifies time. Not in a linear sense, but in relative terms. Hence Einstein, who Wilson describes as "one of the Gods of our time."
Opera with a difference
After an hour and a half at the Berlin premiere, audience members began to grow restless, and some trickled out of the theater. That's not regarded as an affront, but as part of the experience. With no intermissions, people are free to come and go at will. And they do. When the opera was revived in Montpellier in 2012, the largely young audience turned it into a 1970's style happening with sushi, drugs and a lack of reverence for an artistic masterpiece - thoroughly in agreement with the production team's intentions.
As multi-layered as the seemingly senseless monologues, the story has no clear narrative, no beginning, no end. "You're not meant to comprehend Einstein. It's okay for the audience to get lost in it," said Wilson, who regards theater as freedom of personal expression rather than explanation of a condition. A total work of art comprising sound, dance, poetry, sets and light, the opera was revolutionary in the seventies, when a new era of musical theater was beginning to emerge from New York courtyards in advance of the happenings of the internationally noted factory performance scene.
A platform for exceptional artists
Wilson and Glass never expected the opera to become such a success. "We were considered the barbarians of the art scene standing at the gates," Philip Glass observed. Albeit celebrated barbarians who cemented their reputation as exceptional artists with this work, which meanwhile has lost none of its magic.
Tableaus emerge. There's a court scene and a bed consisting of strips of illuminated material drifting off into space. A space ship leaves space and time behind. Two actresses recite texts written by Christopher Knowles, an autistic teenager. Einstein himself is portrayed musically by violinist Jennifer Koh, whose virtuoso playing is ostensibly unemotional yet creates space for emotions in the listener.
It's an opera to be seen but not easily described. After revivals in 1984 and 1992, this is the third time "Einstein on the Beach" has been revived as a reconstruction of the 1976 world premiere - rendered visually more brilliant this time by the latest lighting effects. Also new is the updated chorography by Lucinda Childs, an actress and dancer in the original 1976 production.
Touring with the opera since 2012, the Philip Glass Ensemble has already taken it to three continents. The Berlin performance, the last stop on the journey for the time being, marks the beginning of the MärzMusik festival of contemporary music.
“To enjoy this opera, you have to shift down a gear," said Lucinda Childs. Something like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, in which time slows down the faster one travels.