By Susan Isaacs Nisbett
January 23, 2012
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Some reflections on a rare opportunity to see groundbreaking
'Einstein on the Beach'

What did you think of "Einstein on the Beach"? Leave a comment at the end of this piece.

The clock hanging so luminously in the velvety blackness of the stage says 9:10. Or maybe not. From my vantage point at Power Center for the Performing Arts, where I sit watching a preview performance of a newly remounted Robert Wilson and Philip Glass “Einstein on the Beach,” I think the thin handles on its analog dial may actually read a quarter to two.

Time is what you make of it, depending where you are. It also seems it can run in many directions and at many speeds. “Einstein” is the proof of that. The four-and-a-half-hour opera, revolutionary for its music and its form when it was created in 1976, retains some period flavor. Some of its spoken texts date it; they are of its time. And yet, in preview performances presented by the University Musical Society this weekend, it emerged as utterly modern, and still revolutionary, after a sleep of 20 years since its last revival.

This 2012 “Einstein, commissioned by the UMS and a host of other presenters, has its official world premiere in Montpellier, France, in March, after which it embarks on a world tour. But Wilson (direction and set/light design), Glass (music/lyrics), and Lucinda Childs (choreography/spoken text) have been in residence in Ann Arbor since just after Christmas, reconstructing and remounting their landmark work (Childs did the choreography for 1984 and 1992 revivals) with a team that included the Lucinda Childs Dance Company and the singers and instrumentalists of the Philip Glass Ensemble, additional performers like principals Helga Davis and Kate Moran, and an extensive crew.

The house was packed—sold out—for each performance of this work in progress.

People who knew the work sat alongside newbies, all eager for what may be a last revival by the work’s creators themselves. Friday evening, when I attended, the audience ranged from 20-somethings to 70-somethings—and on up from there. And most stayed to the end, making their own breaks in this intermissionless work, as the creators’ intended.

I found it was hard to tear myself away, taking my seventh-inning stretch at about the 2.5-hour mark. It wasn’t the fear of missing a plot point: in this non-narrative opera, “story” is hardly the issue. (I overheard a returning patron behind me getting a laugh from neighbors with a “What did I miss?”) The set pieces of text (by Childs; Christopher Knowles and Samuel M. Johnson) don’t advance any story, and Glass’s “lyrics” are solfege syllables and numbers.

Ah, yes, numbers—you don’t have to be Einstein (you only need to count to 8) to see the connection to the opera’s titular subject (ditto for trains and clocks), but even Einstein himself, embodied Friday by violinist Jennifer Koh, fiddling away in gray wig and ’stach, is just a jumping-off point for the opera’s ruminations and hallucinatory sequences.

No, “Einstein” just works its way inside you, by accumulation and repetition. Of numbers, of syllables, of musical and movement phrases that reoccur, slightly or substantially mutated, throughout the course of evening. Watching it is a bit like being held in a dream you can’t leave, in which the same actions repeat—without rhyme or reason, perhaps, but with resonance.

If a non-narrative work can pose questions or posit answers, in “Einstein,” where the beach is a conch shell in which the roar of past and present are eternal, the subject seems to be the ways in which time and space run, the relativity of the directions and the speeds. At nearly 5 hours, which can seems both endless and brief, the opera raises the issue simply by virtue of how it unfurls.

But the very materials of the opera play with the ideas that neither time nor space is uniform or absolute. Einstein sticks his tongue out at us once again.

Glass’ music, mesmerizing and energizing, doubles its pace within the meter in a flash, time transformed. You leave the theater, the singers’ final rising and repeated “do-re-mi’s” engraved on a chip in your brain, likely to surface days later (as they are doing now for me).

Wilson’s artistry with light works a similar brain magic. Horizon lines shift mysteriously on the grey-gold cyclorama in the dance sequences, equations materialize in orange bulb lights tracing circles and dashes on giant circuit boards; eclipses blot out clocks and moons, leaving but a dot of light at 9 and 3 o’clock, mini electric-planets.

The clocks run backwards, and rapidly (that is, before they appear, stopped and fixed, in a later scene). But time in reverse is everywhere. A light bar, white-hot in its incandescense, long as the distance from stage floor to flies, is a major player in the opera. It appears early, changes often (in length and orientation) and finally has the stage to itself in a long scene where it is levered, invisibly from a horizontal position on the floor to vertical. Then it begins to rise in the blackness, slowly, slowly, till all that remains is a small square disappearing into the flies. When it’s gone, a faint white light suffuses the spot where it disappeared. It’s a sunset afterglow from a rising body, not a setting one; it’s a sunrise-sunset, physically impossible, and all the more wondrous for it.

Shadows play similar tricks with space. In a sequence in which two performers roll and gesticulate as they lie on their backs on twin gurneys, feet toward the audience, Wilson projects their shadows above and below them. The upper set of shadows has them as giants, upside-down and vertical; the lower set has them vertical and right-side-up, human size. All are real, all are present.

The two major dance sequences in the opera, stunningly performed by members of Childs’ company, similarly rewind and repackage space and time.

In the first, the dancers whirl on and off stage, against Wilson’s pearly backdrop, in formations that for me recalled atomic motion. When they return in the opera’s second half, time has slowed. It seemed to me that phrases were inverted and reversed in direction. A preparation for whipping fouette turns in second position, for example, had become an inside pirouette and an outward detourne en tournant - everything plays out backwards.

I’m still digesting “Einstein” Sunday as I write this. What to do with the “Building” scene, lit like a Hopper painting, with its cast of street observers watching a lonely equation-scribbling figure in an upstairs window, illuminated like one of Vermeer’s mysterious women, all to an extraordinary tenor sax solo (played by Andrew Sterman)? Just enjoy it in memory, I guess.

I’m still pondering locomotives that steam in from the wings and retreat before they appear in full, and enjoying the mystery of the elegant couple on the caboose platform in a later scene and the vision of the caboose in miniature that comes back like an after-image, a mini-mirage on down the track. Re-seeing court stenographers filing their nails and typing like human machines. And hearing Glass' mesmerizing and ultimately moving music.

I wonder how the performers can sleep after all the energy of the show. I had trouble, and I was only watching. Good thing that Glass and Wilson close with music and text to soothe, a calming tale of two lovers on a bench. It’s old and familiar, we’re told, yet new, this story. And it’s oddly moving, and reassuring, in a way that such stories can be in an age of terrors and marvels ushered in, in part, by Einstein.

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