The contemporary classical music world is “usually about 50 years behind the art world,” composer Philip Glass declares. “When they talked about new music, they were talking about pieces written in 1910. Can you believe that?”
The composer is speaking by phone from Manhattan about 1976, the year he created the rule-breaking operatic work Einstein on the Beach with director Robert Wilson. In two historic performances at the Metropolitan Opera in 1976, Einstein dragged the rarefied, uptown world of serious, orchestral opera into the vanguard of late-20th century performing art.
Now, the nearly-five-hour, intermissionless and non-narrative work of dance movement, spoken text, choral singing and starkly architectural imagery — which uses the long cultural shadow cast by physicist Albert Einstein in an oblique commentary on the West's headlong rush toward Armageddon — is finally coming to L.A.
For three evenings, L.A. Opera is hosting one of the 20th century's most revolutionary and rarely seen works of operatic performance, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, in what is both the first staging of the work as part of a major opera company's regular season and probably the last production directly involving its creators.
“You know, I'm getting old,” says the 72-year-old Wilson (his birthday was Oct. 4), speaking from Prague, where he is creating a new theater piece about World War I, called 1914. “Other people can do it, but it's taken a long time to put this back together, so I don't think it's gonna happen again in my lifetime or Philip's.”
The story of getting Einstein to L.A. is almost as epic as the work itself. In 1984 the Brooklyn Academy of Music produced the first revival, which dancer Lucinda Childs joined as choreographer. That revival was intended to tour but never did. In 1992 there was a second BAM revival, which made it to Europe but not the rest of the United States. In the mid-2000s, a planned U.S. tour — with an L.A. performance that would have been a co-presentation of L.A. Opera and UCLA Live — never got off the ground. Even this current L.A. stop — part of a world tour that began last year — was hardly a sure thing. “Frankly,” says Christopher Koelsch, L.A. Opera's president and CEO, “because we were reeling from the economic crisis of 2008, it didn't look like it was possible for us to participate in the tour.”
But when Kristy Edmunds became artistic director for UCLA Live, which is now the Center for the Art of Performance (CAP UCLA), she re-entered talks with L.A. Opera about Einstein. Koelsch put together a special fundraising campaign. While the show is at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, UCLA will hold ancillary events, such as “Creating Einstein on the Beach,” a public talk by Wilson, Glass and Childs at Royce Hall on Oct. 12.
The Einstein here won't be quite the same Einstein that Met audiences saw in 1976. For one thing, neither Wilson, Glass nor Childs will actually appear onstage or in the pit for the first time in the show's 37-year performance history. Childs had, with Sheryl S. Sutton, been one of the two principal performers from the beginning, and Wilson had performed a dance cameo during the spaceship sequence.
What audiences will see represents both an evolution and, in a sense, a professionalization of the original. “When we originally did it,” Wilson recalls, “Andy [deGroat]'s choreography was based on natural movement, you know, and untrained dancers. It was a part of that era and time where you didn't necessarily want to display skills onstage. … What interested me was people being themselves and just ordinary people. People from the street, and [the] extraordinary [was] being ordinary. Now you have dancers with skills. You have singers with more skills.” After the opera achieved international acclaim at the Met, subsequent productions of Einstein could professionalize the singing and dancing because there would now be the money for it.
The mix of nonprofessional with trained artists was very much part of the spirit of New York's legendary downtown arts cauldron of the 1970s, in which painters, poets, dancers and musicians lived, worked and socialized cheek by jowl in the former industrial lofts of the district that was later renamed SoHo.
“It was a real neighborhood in that way,” Glass recalls. “Some people said it was a ghetto, whatever you want to call it. But at that time, it was very creative. There wasn't a lot of money around. Rents were cheap in the lofts. People would work. We were able to put our companies together in making a piece.”
That neighborly proximity brought Wilson and Glass together in the first place. “I saw a piece of his at the Brooklyn Academy of Music,” Glass recalls. “It was The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin . … It was an all-night performance. It began at 6 at night and ended at 6 in the morning. And afterward — it was not that big of an audience there — many of us went to his loft, and we had coffee and breakfast together. It was 6 in the morning. And Bob and I began talking.”
Those talks soon formalized into regular Thursday sessions focused on the idea of creating a major musical theater piece. As they talked, “Bob would in kind of a casual way be making drawings,” Glass recalls. “We ended up with a book of drawings. And I took the book home. And I would look at the pictures, and I would write the music.”
What resulted is what Wilson calls a “time-space construction,” whose barrage of seeming stream-of-consciousness imagery represents classically derived portraits, still lifes and landscapes.
While there are no intermissions between the acts, there are act breaks in the form of the so-called Knee Plays, small, two-person, entr'acte performances that derive their name from Wilson's belief that they function as the “connecting tissue” between the “meat” of the four acts. Audiences have tended to use the pieces to make needed runs to the lobby. In fact, there is generally a lot of coming and going during an Einstein performance.
“This piece is [not only] breaking all the rules onstage, it breaks all the rules offstage as well,” Koelsch says. “The idea that you can come and go as you please in some ways connects to a very contemporary idea of an on-demand culture.”
L.A. Opera has obliged by creating a social media lounge, where audience members can see the opera on lobby monitors while taking a break and share their experience with fellow ticket holders in real time.
What remains surprising to Edmunds and Koelsch is how strikingly avant-garde Einstein remains nearly 40 years after its creation. Its radical collapse of narrative into cultural signifiers and imagery remains a bold detour from linear narrative, which no other major opera has dared to follow.
“Not that we invented it,” Glass hastens to add. “But certainly I would say Einstein created a kind of standard where this kind of synthesis can happen.”
To Koelsch, that is precisely what opens up the piece to non-opera audiences. “For people who wouldn't normally think that opera is for them,” he says, “they're going to have a profound theatrical-musical experience. So you can come in with lots of knowledge or no knowledge, but in a world in which experiences can start to feel generic, there's nothing generic about this.”
“It's a masterpiece,” Edmunds agrees, “and one that we are lucky to have a chance to see and experience while the hands of the principal creators are still very much on it.”
Einstein on the Beach is presented by L.A. Opera and CAP UCLA at the Dorothy
Chandler Pavilion, Oct. 11-13. For info visit laopera.org.
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