As a new production opens at BAM, delve deeper into ‘Einstein on the Beach’ with Kalb’s ‘Great Lengths’

by Shaun Manning on September 10, 2012

Following successful engagements in Ann Arbor and London, Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach begins a ten-day run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on September 14, representing what will likely be the final performances of the five-hour opera. “When Einstein was first performed [in 1976], nobody had seen anything like it; the idea of an abstract opera, in which the music underpinned a series of slowly moving stage pictures was entirely new,” the Guardian newspaper observed in its review of the Barbican performances. Looking forward to the BAM run, the New York Times examines the history of the opera and the ways in which it does and does not hold up well after more than 25 years, writing,

Einstein on the Beach represents the apex of the early work of Mr. Glass and Mr. Wilson, and it played a crucial role in their careers. Mr. Glass has become perhaps the most prolific and popular of all contemporary composers, with a particular passion for opera; the success of “Einstein” led European impresarios to commission him to write operas as the term is more conventionally understood, starting with “Satyagraha” in the Netherlands in 1979.

In Great Lengths: Seven Works of Marathon Theater, Jonathan Kalb devotes an entire chapter to Einstein. “In December 1984, when I saw my first Wilson piece—Einstein on the Beach in its first revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House—he had not premiered a new piece in the United States in eight years,” Kalb wrote. ” That evening destroyed a number of old shibboleths for me. It has lived vividly in my memory through two and a half decades, not least because it is still the only theater work I have seen that sustained my interest and attention over a marathon length of time without a substantial text.”

The chapter on Einstein explores the context into which Einstein had emerged, with nonnarrative theater already on the rise thanks to Mabou Mines, Richard Foreman, Meredith Monk, and others. Nevertheless, Kalb recounts several of Wilson and Glass’s innovations, which together produced an especially memorable effect. “For me, the show was an avant-gardist redemption, because it revived my then flagging belief that the legacy of Wilson’s generation of innovators could still be excitingly provocative. Einstein melted my resistance, which was considerable, in the course of the evening. It taught me how to appreciate it, how to accept and read its nonverbal strategies as a form of ‘writing,’ and it consequently upset my already rather hardened sense of the hierarchy of perception in the theater.” After a brief overview, Kalb discusses the play, Wilson, and Glass… at greater length.

A short video from Einstein on the Beach is available on the New York Times website. Great Lengths is available now. 

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