Einstein on the Beach

It is not every day that you get the opportunity to enjoy an almost five hour opera.  The Berliner Festspiele has had a thoroughly successful run of PHILLIP GLASS and ROBERT WILSON’s 1976 groundbreaking work

Einstein on the Beach. A combination of dance, music and theatre, the opera is a conceptual portrait of Einstein. Choreography by Lucinda Childs, the opera features poetry by autistic poet Christopher Knowles, with beautifully turned lines such as ‘If you know it was a violin to be answer the telephone and if any one asks you please it was trees it it it is like that.’

With a running time of almost five hours, without intermission, the audience can come and go as pleased, although that’s somewhat challenging in a packed theatre. The Festspiele, located in West Berlin is a 1963 building designed by Fritz Borneman, full of wood paneling and floor to ceiling windows, it’s restrained aesthetic is the perfect place to highlight Robert Wilson’s sparse stage setting and light design.

einstein on the beach

The opera doesn’t so much begin as creep up on you. Prior to the exact curtain time, two figures (Helga Davis and Kate Moran) appear sitting on chairs over an illuminated ground. Slowly, moving in choreographed increments, other members of the choir begin to enter the theatre. The two figures start reciting some of Knowles’ poetry, matching the text with repetitive hand gestures, you can almost make sense of it. Gradually the audience quiets down, and what follows is four hours and forty minutes of a unique visual and aural adventure. One stage set begins with a single white conch shell, spotlit against a black stage. Fog begins to pour out as the curtain is raised, and several figures come into view. On a stylized crane with a promontory walkway, a young boy stands a glowing cube. The violin soloist, Jennifer Koh, emerges onto the stage with white hair teased up in an imitation of Einstein’s signature hairstyle.  Dancers emerge, singers join and retreat, and the play unfolds in four acts, with the signature ‘knee plays’ between the scenes.

There are writers and musicians far better versed in the world of opera and modern music who can do this masterpiece of a work justice. As a humble fan with little prior knowledge of avant-garde opera, this writer found Einstein on the Beach a musical experience that was completely enchanting.  The production was otherworldly in muted palettes of grays, whites, blacks and the occasional red.

Einstein on the Beach had elements of humor, danger, and of course, love. I once asked Patrick Faurot, a Berlin composer, what his opera was about, and he told me, ‘Like all operas: it’s about love.’  Einstein on the Beach is no exception. The last knee play features a bus driver telling about two lovers talking on a park bench. In response to his lover’s request as to ‘how much he loves her,’ John replies ‘My love for you is higher than the heavens, deeper than Hades, and broader than the earth. It has no limits, no bounds. Everything must have an ending except my love for you.’