Yesterday I spent the afternoon at the last New York performance of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's masterwork opera Einstein on the Beach. It's a rare thing since the production requires both an orchestra capable of performing Glass's meditative, minimalist music and a cast capable of performing Wilson's intricate, ritualistic direction. And famously it lasts over four hours without intermission, which can be a trial for audience members unused to non-narrative works.
Einstein is a successful melding of art and science, because it doesn't attempt to be too literal about the science. It's conceived as a progression of dream-scapes; there is no real dialogue. What words one hears are either digressive, strange monologues or repetitive strings of numbers and solfège symbols. At first this approach mystifies. But then, isn't it a valid, indeed precise, interpretation of the hermeticism of scientific dialogue, and its requirement for quantity and measurement? Singers count beats, name notes; it may seem overly literal, except that's just the point. The rest of the dialogue prods us to dream.
The opera proceeds towards its crescendo in several, apparently unrelated scenes or vignettes. Wilson's staging re-uses visual cues, such as clocks, moons, circles, compasses and a grand bar of white light, like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey (a film that came out only eight years before the opera first premiered). The bar has several other resonances: its first appearance in the "Train" sequences clearly represent one of the bolts of lightning Einstein used in his famous thought experiment on special relativity, breaking simultaineity.
Later the bar appears on a darkened stage as a solitary line on the floor, that slowly rises to the upright position and then ascends offstage. This representation (apparently confusing to one recent New York Times reviewer) has profound representational possibilities: my preferred is the so-called "Doomsday Clock" kept by the Bulletin of Atomic scientists since 1947. As the minute hand ascends to the vertical, nuclear war comes closer to hand. The white bar, a simple and pure symbol, takes on immense resonance. And clocks, time in general, are themes that both Glass and Wilson refer to endlessly.
The bar may also represent a missile raising to the launch position and then ascending into the air. This melds with the next scene, which is of a rocket ascending. Then the opera reaches its crescendo ("Spaceship") in a darkened, mechanical atmosphere reminiscent of one of the grand scenes in Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
In the 2012 version, the Spaceship scene included a devilish character who appeared to be directing the workers, clarifying the scene's sinister overtones. And at the end a scrim dropped before it with a 1960s era image of the effects of a hydrogen-bomb blast. I don't recall either devil or bomb-image from the last time I'd seen the opera, back in the 1980s. Perhaps my memory fails me. Either way, given the obscure nature of the opera's symbology, I felt these were welcome pointers.
They also served to deepen the final scene, with its strange and otherworldly turn to love, and one of the great final phrases: "fervent osculation."
It's a piece not to miss for any with an appreciation of Glass's minimalist music or Wilson's expressionist stagecraft. The piece is different enough to be unique in its impact. I believe it to be one of the greatest late 20th century operas, however only time will tell how it fits into the repertory. It's unlikely that many will attempt to copy Wilson's technically demanding direction. But is there Einstein without Wilson? If not, future performances will likely be limited to devotees. And that would be a shame. For the opera, difficult and demanding though it is, deserves a wide audience.