Einstein on the Beach

einsteinOnBeach-LightboxI’ve been struggling with how to explain Einstein on the Beach to people, and what an impactful, unexpectedly moving piece of art it was. And I could tell you what it meant to me, but it would have nothing to do with what it might mean to you. I’ve never seen anything like it and I’m sure I never will again.

I really, really didn’t expect to love it as much as I did. I had never understood Philip Glass’s music before. Full disclosure: I went to see Satyagraha at the Met from our usual nosebleed balcony box seats and slept through half of it. But a friend gave me tickets to opening night for Einstein on the Beach at the LA Opera and I jumped at the chance to check it out*.

Einstein on the Beach

It runs 4 hours without intermission, with music that constantly repeats itself (and mostly stays in the high end range, puffing the sinuses). Maybe that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea. Whose cup of tea could it possibly be? But stay with me.

I had the privilege of sitting in the third row orchestra, dead center, and looking into the pit to watch the orchestra, ensemble, and chorus. The first two scenes are difficult and feel interminable; the organ cycles are relentless bordering on sadistic; the repetitive scenes made me squirm with discomfort. I watched several people plug their ears, then file out of their primo seats, never to return.

But then I found a fissure in what Robert Wilson calls a “knee play”, an interstitial scene performed from the pit. I watched the chorus and the astonishing Lisa Bielawa sing the numbers “1, 2, 3, 4…” over and over again. What I love about opera in general has nothing to do with any lofty intellectual appreciation. I love opera the way other people love the Olympics — it’s a chance for me to watch people contort their bodies through sheer will and do what few others in the world can do. In this knee play, I found that mind-boggling virtuosity, not in showy high Cs but in an ensemble keeping track of time and space in a superhuman way. That fissure became a crack that poured light over the whole experience. My body and mind made the transition from linear expectation into a kind of trance.

Einstein_2212890bEINSTEIN-articleLargeFrom there, it became a meditation in kairos time. I was glued to my seat, and my nerves were firing. I got lost in the imagery on stage, the choreography, the unbelievably difficult music. Scenes would typically cycle through a sequence and repeat again and again, adding a layer here, a note there, a new character or a new movement. A woman with anime eyes and Minnie Mouse hair puts her ear to a conch shell and bathes in its sound. A chorus, as a jury, simultaneously and gingerly places their paper lunch bags next to their feet. A white bar of light oppresses, blinding you, but you miss it when it rises up and leaves. Dancers in white and beige uniforms pirouette and jeté across the stage in a sequence that is light and energetic at first until its length feels cruel.

02EINSTEIN1_SPAN-articleLargeIt rings in my ears. This week, I found myself thinking about the repetitive motions of modern life. Wake up, work, go to sleep. Stoplight red, green light go. 9-5, 9-5, 9-5, 9-5, 9-5, weekend. It is the moments that break those cycles that can crank up the tension but also offer relief from monotony. My life was propelling forward in daily cycles at an unnoticeably rapid clip until my father had a heart attack and I moved back to L.A. This year is one of those extraordinary moments for me — a dilation of time and space, a paradigm shift, an atomic bomb.

Maybe you don’t buy it. I don’t blame you; my articulation has limitations. But if you have a chance to see it, you really should.

* With deepest gratitude to the friend who gave me the tickets. Holy shit, I owe you.

3 comments

  1. Ganda

    My friend who gave me the tickets sent this to me. It’s the petit four at the end of the opera, spoken by a man on a bus:

    “The day with its cares and perplexities is ended and the night is now upon us. The night should be a time of peace and tranquility, a time to relax and be calm. We have need of a soothing story to banish the disturbing thoughts of the day, to set at rest our troubled minds, and put at ease our ruffled spirits.

    And what sort of story shall we hear? Ah, it will be a familiar story, a story that is so very, very old, and yet it is so new. It is the old, old story of love.

    Two lovers sat on a park bench, with their bodies touching each other, holding hands in the moonlight.

    There was silence between them. So profound was their love for each other, they needed no words to express it. And so they sat in silence, on a park bench, with their bodies touching, holding hands in the moonlight.

    Finally she spoke. “Do you love me, John?” she asked. “You know I love you, darling,” he replied. “I love you more than tongue can tell. You are the light of my life, my sun, moon and stars. You are my everything. Without you I have no reason for being.”

    Again there was silence as the two lovers sat on a park bench, their bodies touching, holding hands in the moonlight. Once more she spoke. “How much do you love me, John?” she asked. He answered: “How much do I love you? Count the stars in the sky. Measure the waters of the oceans with a teaspoon. Number the grains of sand on the sea shore. Impossible, you say.”

    “Yes and it is just as impossible for me to say how much I love you.”

    “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.”

    There was more of silence as the two lovers sat on a park bench with their bodies touching, holding hands in the moonlight.

    Once more her voice was heard. “Kiss me, John,” she implored. And leaning over, he pressed his lips warmly to hers in fervent osculation.”

  2. Alan Lapthorn

    You definitely have to see it! I listened to my favourite bits almost everyday for about 6 months afterwards.

    I saw it in Toronto in 2012 and heard Philip Glass being interviewed by Jian Ghomeshi on Q the morning before the performance. He said I could come and go through the performance as I wished (I paraphrase) , go down to the bar during the more repetitive bits, etc.

    It definitely sticks with me much more than Satyagraha.

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