I almost didn’t dare start this. Where do you even begin to write about this epic production (credits) when you’re anything less than the Masters’ right hand? Certainly not at the beginning, cause there isn’t one.
Take a masterpiece of massive proportions: a five-hour whirlwind, a sequence of images, sounds & spoken words, alternating between 5 interludes or ‘knee plays’ which also serve as scene and mood changers. Premiered in 1976 in Avignon, France. Revived first in 1984. Tagged as avant-garde, rule breaking, unconventional. An opera without plot, that you are not supposed to understand or interpret (according to the Masters). What then?
Well easy, just follow the pattern: let the repetitive fragments of the synthesizer *dotted with the higher-pitched sound of woodwinds, a moody sax solo and the choral & solo voices of The Philip Glass Ensemble* electrify your brain, become a smooth coat, hypnotise you. Look not for deeper meaning nor explanation; given time, it’ll just dawn on you. Slowly. Subconsciously. When you cross that line, you enter another dimension; it’s almost mystical.
Some time after you found your seat in the fully-booked theatre, at a moment when the audience *suddenly* decides to quite down, you start noticing the two actors sitting and smiling, talking in words and numbers and solfege syllables. Followed by various acts/symbolic references, making their way slowly on stage: a steam train, a trial, a prison, people gathering, posing, in front of a high building – a scene directly out of a Hopper (or was it de Chirico?) painting – a couple in a night train, in what looked like a romantic but fatal rendez vous (in the end they may have killed each other)…
Einstein on the Beach is an opera about the scientist who loved music (portrayed by the bewigged violinist Antoine Silverman on the day we attended) & steam trains & toys & maybe the beach. Or the Masters may just wanted to portray him outside the chaotic, confined environment that was his study by placing him on the beach, a place exposed to forces of nature, a limitless open space… Or may be these were references to Einstein’s experiments… Or, again maybe, none of the above…
”I was in this prematurely air-conditioned super market - and there were all these aisles and there were all these bathing caps that you could buy - which had these kind of Fourth of July plumes on them - they were red and yellow and blue - I wasn’t tempted to buy one - but I was reminded of the fact that I had been avoiding the beach.” (text by Lucinda Childs)
It is also an opera with references to a past, highly stylised lifestyle, Women’s Lib, Mr Bojangles, all things American… All the way to the explosive finale/ultimate reference to the genius, the pacifist whose studies -ironically- led to the creation of something so fatal. And a rocket, a spaceship, a nuclear explosion… The end and yet again the beginning: with a couple sitting quietly, embracing in the moonlight and a bus driver reciting:
”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.” (Knee 5 – text by Mr. Samuel Johnson)
The opera was choreographed by Lucinda Childs, first in 1984. A glance into The Lucinda Childs Dance Company troop (that we first saw in the exhilarating revival of Dance, in Kaaitheater Brussels, back in October), and Ms Childs’ signature choreography: her repetitive, minimal, whirling manner, dancers forming square patterns or lines, turning, swirling, jumping tirelessly, effortlessly, almost weightless on stage.
The text, consisted of numbers, solfege syllables, passages by Samuel Johnson & Lucinda Childs, and some cryptic poems by Christopher Knowles, an autistic (?) man whom Wilson met in the early 1970s, when he was a boy. Wilson spent a lot of time with him trying to understand his language, full of repetitions and unintelligible words. Is he the boy we see in the acts, or is it Einstein?
As there is no narrative sequence, the audience is free to absorb as much as they can take; with no intermissions, people are invited to move whenever they feel the need, throughout the performance. Though some did take advantage of this, I was amazed to notice that the majority bravely stayed put throughout. I wasn’t one of them; simply had to stretch (legs and brain) for 15′ (but couldn’t wait to rush back in!)
The stage management team worked wonders in a perfectly synchronized execution; the technicians, all dressed appropriately in black, blended in the scene by moving along the actors, changing the set as if they were an integral part of the scene.
The costumes (original designs) were baggy trousers, white shirts and black suspenders. Blending with the stylishly neutral set: black & white & all shades of grey; midnight blues & bright moonlight yellows; dashes of eye-catching red; explosive fire oranges in the ”Spaceship” act.
Equation solution: in the sense that the 70s were an exciting time, wide open to new ideas -a sentiment that we somehow lost along the way to the 00s-, in a world where everything is relative, this work -far from being dated- is as avant-garde now, as it was in 1976.
Standing ovation for the three Masters (who joined and took a bow), actors, singers, musicians, technicians & everyone who made this unforgettable performance possible.
Opening in Hong Kong on March 8th, for three (nearly sold-out) performances, then Melbourne on July 31st. Click for details.
Until then… ”All these are the days my friends and these are the days my friends” (Christopher Knowles)
Snapshots from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WW1RHByHJ8g & www.youtube.com/watch?v=b26E0D2pm1c