Luminato presents the Toronto premiere of Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’ rarely-performed epic opera Einstein on the Beach.
The 2012 edition of Luminato, Toronto’s annual festival of arts and creativity, kicked off on Friday and one of its most highly-anticipated (or at least highly-publicized) events is the Canadian premiere of the epic opera Einstein on the Beach.
In 1976, Philip Glass, a prolific contemporary classical composer whose style is often described as minimalist collaborated with avant-garde stage director Robert Wilson to create Einstein on the Beach. In the years since, the opera has rarely been performed. This international touring production presented in Toronto by Luminato is the first major production of the opera in twenty years.
Einstein on the Beach is billed as an opera in four acts with five interstitial scenes described as “knee plays” by the creators (since they serve as the joints between the major acts). It clocks in at a staggering 4 hours and 20 minutes with no intermission although, mercifully, audience members are permitted to quietly leave and re-enter the auditorium during the performance.
While it’s described as an opera it only loosely fits the broadest definition of the term in that it’s a staged musical performance. Though it’s certainly operatic in scope and scale, the show doesn’t follow a linear plot, instead it’s an abstract performance which blends music, dialogue/poetry and dance elements. You’d be forgiven if it sounds a bit arty and inaccessible.
At a pre-show talk, Luminato Artistic Director Jorn Weisbrodt said, “Don’t try to force yourself to try to understand the opera, just open yourself up to the experience and the understanding will come later,” which is a good way to approach the work; even if I didn’t necessarily always follow the advice.
I sometimes couldn’t help myself from searching for meaning to try to understand the imagery; were the dancers in white supposed to be photons illustrating the wave-particle duality of light? Was the child flying in a plexiglass capsule with a clock supposed to illustrate the time dilation in Einstein’s Theory of Relativity?
While it took a while for me to settle in to the performance, after a while I found that the score took on a hypnotic quality due to its repetitive nature and I’d often zone out.
The defining characteristics of the performance are repetition, layering and variation. Glass’ style of layering, repeating and incorporating variations of the same musical passage permeates the score of Einstein. The libretto mostly consists of singers repeatedly singing numbers or sequences of soflège syllables (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti).
Similarly, the spoken dialogue and dance sequences mirror the score in the way they use repetition, layering and variation. Dialogue passages are repeated over and over, and layered on top of each other. Lucinda Childs’ choreography for the two interstitial dance sequences feature the same set of steps repeated in different variations.
The show unfolds as an abstract series of tableaux. The notions of transportation and journey seem to be a through-line; images of trains, planes, buses and space ships are often evoked. The overall production design retains a sort of 1970s aesthetic quality to it.
The highlights of the performance for me were definitely the instrumental soloists; Jennifer Koh plays a virtuosic violin and also portrays the character of Einstein, and David Cromwell’s improvised tenor saxophone solo is a breath of fresh air from the repetitive strains of the rest of the score. In fact, I’m amazed at the concentration and stamina of all the musicians in this marathon performance.
I went into Einstein on the Beach curious about what all the hype was about. In the end, while there are aspects of the performance I enjoyed, I did find it a challenging piece to grasp and even to sit through (although I do recommend taking a stretch break and watching the performance while standing at the back of the auditorium for a while).
If you’re not a fan of Philip Glass’ style of music or have an aversion to abstract, performance art-style theatre you’ll likely find the show obtuse and inaccessible. But, if you are a fan of Glass’ work, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, one that I’m grateful to have had the chance to experience.
- Einstein on the Beach runs through June 10 at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, 1 Front Street East, Toronto
- Performances June 8 and 9 at 6:00PM and June 10 at 3:00PM
- Tickets $49 – $175
- For tickets and additional information visit www.luminato.com
- Einstein on the Beach, Photo by Lesley Leslie Spinks