Composer Philip Glass and the director Robert Wilson this year have been on a revival tour of their 1976 avant-garde opera “Einstein on the beach”. It was performed in the Bay Area at the Zellerbach Auditorium in UC Berkeley in front of a packed audience on Sunday October 25.
The opera is four and a half hours long with no intermissions. Audience members are allowed to take breaks on their own. Even with breaks not much is missed. But I decided to experience every second of the performance.
The opera consists nine acts and five knee plays. Glass defines a "Knee Play" as an interlude between acts and as "the 'knee' referring to the joining function that humans' anatomical knees perform".
In this review I will spare the reader the logistics on the synopsis of the various acts and mostly describe the essence of the performance.
Einstein on the Beach is a very puzzling and cryptic opera. All the performers are adorned in the same clothes. They continuously mutter the same strange nonsensical phrases. The dancers repetitively perform the same dance sequences. There is a sense of blinding continuity, which immediately casts a spell on the audience. No effort should be induced into understanding the opera. It mimics life with its absurdities and conundrums.
The performance should be taken as a personal journey-to be enjoyed full heartedly.
The music by Glass lets the mind wander and sway. The performance is like hashish. It causes a feverish delirium where immediately afterwards one starts hallucinating. As per Dr.Oliver Sacks, from N.Y.U School of Medicine, in older times hallucinations were regarded as gifts from the gods and were considered to have a positive and comforting role. I did see and hear my loved ones. I also saw the stage being lifted and the performers floating around the auditorium.
In Heideggerian terms this opera can be symbolized as the study of ‘philosophy’. A useless task with no expectations whatsoever yet a very strong real force. Just like philosophy, the opera pushes the audience to the very edge. With no indication of where to go from there. It cannot be properly questioned nor can it be fully understood. Yet it has something to do with us. It understands us.
The stage continuously buzzes with activity, people, nuclear blasts, images, scientific theories, trains, buses. But in the end everything disappears and there remain just two.
Two on a bench talking about love. Glass is trying to describe the duality of life. As the mythical character Tomte explains to the philosopher in Strindberg’s play The Black Glove:
And highest in the chain at the very top
You find duality, for it was not good for man to be alone
And so came man and woman forth
And the duality of nature was confirmed.
One feels a euphoric jubilation at the end of the opera. And then there is the craving for more.