Einstein on the Beach is so empty that you get to fill it, and that must be one of its greatest attractions. It's a test of the emergency art lover system--can you put up with/analyze/go into a mystic state watching Robert Wilson's supremely glacial staging (even the things that move quickly, like one poor actor who must shake his head as if afflicted, or a bobblehead, continuously for a good twenty minute scene, are about repetition, and therefore collapse into sameness), listening to Philip Glass's early score that tends to a maximalist minimalism that can turn semi-pummeling, and taking in ideas as huge as "it's all relative," which means a bit of everything and nothing? If so, this is the anti-opera for you.
What saddens me is I thought it was for me, too. When I bought tickets to see the current version of the opera, I was a bit giddy, as I never thought I'd get to see it. And what an it it is; here's the LA Times' Mark Swed: "When the original Einstein was given at the sold-out Metropolitan Opera in New York for two special performances 36 years ago, many of us walked out of the theater into a changed world. The street sounds were newly charged. Neon lights looked like living art."
How often does art do that to you? Does Hass's "Meditation at Lagunitas"? Rauschenberg's Coca-Cola Plan? Bausch's Rites of Spring? Phair's Exile in Guyville? Wenders's Wings of Desire? Colson's John Henry Days? Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek?
OK, even those major works don't do that. So maybe I wanted too much. But I really like Glass. In fact, I pretty much only connect with modern classical (unless Glenn Gould is at the piano)--Glass and Reich are favorites of mine. And given what totally sold me on Glass was seeing Twyla Tharp create dance to his music for In the Upper Room, I was even excited about the extended modern dance by Lucinda Childs that is featured in two of Einstein's scenes.
Alas, I need something to get me through 4 and half hours. (Would it have helped if I were high? Discuss.) I can give up on narrative quicker than most, liking both modernism and post-modernism and not being able to craft story myself so therefore being more willing to forgive that in others. But in Einstein that mostly means you get, you hope, to anticipate scene-length by cues like, "This will end when that light, that's supposed to be the bed from the two trial scenes but is just, well, a bar of light, rises from horizontal to perpendicular." When it gets there, it doesn't seem like such a victory; of course, it then has to take off like a rocket. A slow rocket. (I am a child of the Saturn V, and I like rockets, but this didn't awaken the nascent NASA-lover in me one bit.)
For spaceships are big in Einstein, even if the exteriors of ones tend to look cheap and cheesy like something Ed Wood crafted for Plan 9 from Outerspace. I find heading into the mystical while giggling is hard. And then when one person actually takes harness-aided flight across the stage, it almost made me guffaw, especially when he came back the other way. It almost seemed like some tv show's joke of a high school play gone wrong. Which is also a hint of another major fault of this work--nothing this long should take itself so damn seriously. A few laughs wouldn't hurt, at least the audience, even if they might disrupt the steely machine on stage.
Indeed, most of the allusions in the opera, whether intended (I assume the trial scenes have to make us think of Kafka, that the interior of the spaceship with people toiling at lighted stations has to refer to Metropolis) or non-intended ( the second train scene, with the two characters on the back of the train, is done way better, imagistically and metaphorically in Days of Heaven as a five second throw-away, and of course they couldn't be referring to Malick's film as it came after the opera, but if time is relative, and more importantly, if I've got 20 minutes to think about it, my mind's going everywhere) led to blind alleys worse than this run-on sentence.
After all, if the point of the whole thing is "time is an isn't" or "talk about your ironies, Einstein was a pacifist but his work led to the atom bomb," well, I know that and don't need an afternoon in a theater to point it out, if elegantly artily. And I have to say, all the performers did do an amazing job--in some ways the biggest lesson is there are very talented people who can pull off insistently stressful things (those singers turned to instruments in Glass's arpeggiated score!).
That it all ends with the bus driver telling us a cliched story of great love, while two characters sit on a bench not acting out what he's telling us, well, either I have to take that as a refutation of the mushy dialogue exchange we get to hear or that suddenly we're supposed to believe love conquers all, because we've been told so. ("Everything," one lover says to the other, "must have an ending, except my love for you." Oh, jeez.) And that's despite how four hours of this opera reduces its humans, even Childs' spectacular whirling dancers, into atoms, into at best bit parts in the universe's cruelly casual stage. Where are the people in Einstein on the Beach? Washed away in references to dystopias like The Trial or Metropolis; bowled over by Glass's surging score.
A few moments break through, as they finally vary the machine's either steady drill-press or frenetic beat-the-clock speed. There's "Knee Play 3"--Wilson calls the little entr'actes knee plays, and if only there was more such conjunctive material--when the chorus gets closest to something religious and maybe by suggesting god they suggest the humans who made him. And there's Act IV, Scene C, "The Building," when Andrew Sterman gets to wail a sax solo, perhaps the most "I am here moment" of the afternoon. He probably feels horribly guilty after each performance.
So here's a group doing "Knee Play 3." Enjoy how human they are, how we see them sing, how there's hope in that. It does more for me than all 260 minutes of the full production: