Philipp Glass's opera »Einstein on the Beach« has enjoyed cult status since the first performance in 1976. Concertgoers now have a rare opportunity to hear the work, which the Los Angeles Times recently described as »the most important opera of the last 50 years«, at the Elbphilharmonie. The work focuses on the most famous physicist of all time, even though the portrayal of Einstein is highly associative. To an extent it undermines the parameters of the opera genre: there is no plot, just sound patterns accompanied by enigmatic sentences from the pen of the poet Christopher Knowles. These are spoken by American singer Suzanne Vega, who achieved world fame with her songs »Tom’s Diner« and »Luka«.
Trailer | Philipp Glass: Einstein On The Beach
Suzanne Vega narrator
Collegium Vocale Gent
Igor Semenoff violin
Chryssi Dimitriou flute
Dirk Descheemaeker bass clarinet, soprano sax
Nele Tiebout soprano saxophone, alto saxophone
Jean-Luc Fafchamps keyboard
Jean-Luc Plouvier keyboard
Michael Schmid conductor, flute
conductor Tom De Cock
Alexandre Fostier sound
Germaine Kruip Scenography
Einstein on the Beach / Oper in vier Akten
Konzertante Aufführung in englischer Sprache
Einstein himself is not important :Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach
The New York Times once asked Philip Glass what compliment would make him really proud, and he replied: »If someone said about a new piece I'd written that it didn't sound as if it was by me at all«. It goes without saying that his answer was meant ironically. After all, Glass knows only too well that his success is partly based on his music's recognition value. Whether it's a grand opera or a little piano piece, whether it's a soundtrack or a symphony – Glass always constructs his music from these tiny rhythmic cells which expand at incredible speed, and produce an effect nothing short of hypnotic with their constantly altering repetitions. This style, known as »Minimal Music«, was responsible for his rise to become one of the best-known and most sought-after contemporary composers.
The success that lay ahead was not necessarily foreseeable at the outset of Philip Glass's career. The Baltimore native studied at New York's prestigious Juilliard School and with the legendary Nadia Boulanger in Paris, it's true. But even after his first works were published in the mid-1960s, he was forced to set up a removals firm (together with fellow composer Steve Reich) to earn a living.
Glass made his breakthrough in 1976 with »Einstein on the Beach«, which he brought out jointly with the Texan producer, stage designer and librettist Robert Wilson. It remains to be seen whether the work is an »anti-opera«, as some critics have said, but it certainly contributed something completely new to the opera world. Glass himself once admitted that he never experienced even one of the 50 performances of »Einstein on the Beach« that he attended without a break. »But it was never my intention for it to be seen as a a single narrative piece,« he explained. With this comment the composer hinted at the revolutionary potential with which he and Wilson bade farewell to the classical opera format. The first performance in Avignon in the south of France lasted five hours – as long as a Wagner opera. And there was no interval!
Moreover, »Einstein on the Beach« is an opera without a story. There is no traditional libretto or even a narrative thread. Rather, the text consists to a large part of columns of figures and solmisation syllables (»do-re-mi«), of texts by the choreographer Lucinda Childs and the actor Samuel M. Johnson. Poems by Christopher Knowles are also regularly recited – Robert Wilson knew Knowles from the time when he taught at a special school in New York. If we add Glass's music, in which solo voices, a chorus and an ensembles featuring keyboards, organs and a saxophone sometimes seem to get lost, then »Einstein on the Beach« turns out to be a collection of sounds and images with one sole aim: to inspire the audience's imagination. »In the four months that we spent touring >Einstein< in Europe,« Glass has said, »people occasionally asked us what the work ›meant‹. But far more people told us what the piece meant to them personally, sometimes even furnishing their own explanations for the story and the entire scenario.«
Albert Einstein. Actually irrelevant to the Glass opera, as the title figure was not intended to play any part in the content. The idea was just to use a name well-known enough to arouse people's interest.
This unusual concept is already reflected in Glass's and Wilson's search for a title figure. They were not interested in the »content« of the person, they just wanted a name well-known enough to arouse people's interest. Wilson had already dedicated plays to Sigmund Freud and Josef Stalin. In the search for an appropriate historic personality for their opera, Glass und Wilson suggested Charlie Chaplin, Adolf Hitler or Gandhi. In the end, they decided on Albert Einstein, who had already been a hero for Glass when he was growing up. The work was given the title »Einstein on the Beach on Wall Street« without further ado – as if there were a beach on Wall Street! Today, both artists claim they can't remember when and why the title was shortened.
But the structure of the opera was settled early on: it is a loose sequence of associative scenes and musical entities. Embedded into this sequence are so-called »kneeplays« that function as a sort of intermezzo and act as a frame for the work as a whole.
Although Einstein doesn't only feature in the title, but is also immortalised in kneeplay 2 in a big violin solo (the physicist was a gifted amateur violinist), the text passages all lead away from him rather than to him: there is mention of a court hearing, and the presenters of a New York radio station are quoted as well as the country hit Mr. Bojangles. At the very end, we climb on board a spaceship and explore one last time all those Glassian soundscapes hitherto never heard in this form.
In the next few years, Philip Glass even followed »Einstein« with two more operas about famous men: about Gandhi (»Satyagraha«, 1980) and about the pharaoh Echnaton (»Akhnaten«, 1983). Together with his soundtrack to the film »Koyaanisqatsi« (1982), these made a significant contribution to the composer's popularity outside the realm of classical music. Glass ranges alongside Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage and Steve Reich as one of those composers who have also made their mark on recent rock and pop history. His music had a strong influence on David Bowie, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno, and by the same token Glass's album »Songs from Liquid Days« features settings of song texts that Paul Simon, Laurie Anderson and Suzanne Vega had sent him.
For Californian pop singer Suzanne Vega, this marked the beginning of a close artistic friendship with Glass in the mid-80s. So she was immediately delighted at the idea that she should participate in the new production of »Einstein on the Beach«. Plans for the project go back as far as 2017, when the Belgian ensemble Ictus accompanied Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's dance company to New York for a series of performances in the MoMA. Suzanne Vega was present at the time. She now appears as a multi-character narrator, reciting the texts by Christopher Knowles, Samuel M. Johnson and Lucinda Childs.
Another special feature of this production is the focus on the score itself and on the musical sound of the libretto. There are no scenic extravagances like in the original Wilson/Glass production. »This is music that puts itself on show,« as the musicians emphasise. And it represents an enormous physical and intellectual challenge for all the participants – and for the audience. For that reason, as expressly intended by Glass and Wilson, the doors of the Grand Hall will remain open throughout the performance. As a member of the audience, you can move around freely: if you need a break, you can stroll over to the bar in the foyer and enjoy a drink before re-immersing yourself in the Glass universe later on.
Author: Guido Fischer, last updated 22 Nov. 2022
English translation: Clive Williams