Last Sunday afternoon, my wife Marilyn and I attended â€œEinstein on the Beachâ€ at UC Berkeleyâ€™s Zellerbach Hall. Scored by Philip Glass and directed by Robert Wilson, this modern opera first premiered in France in 1976, and after a short European tour, closed in New York City. Since then, millions have heard and embraced the work. And this year, the originators mounted a limited-release revival tour, including the first and only west coast performance.
The Zellerbach Playhouse pre-talk included Glass and Wilson, along with choreographer Lucinda Childs. Childs, who performed in the original production along with Glass and Wilson, joined to reflect on the show’s inspiration, as well as how audience perception has changed since its debut. The opera is famous for both its intermission-less 4-1/2 hour length and lack of a storyline. While the conversation provided background information, the speakers steered clear of explanation and detail to allow the show to be rediscovered and deciphered by today’s audience.
As we entered the theater, I heard barely perceptible keyboard tones, followed by multiple voices repeating numbers. Though the show had not yet started, these sounds continued as we found our seats, ululating in volume and intensity, blurring the distinction between the worlds outside and inside the auditorium. The pace of the music slowed my busy mind, preparing me for the meditative, minimalist music of Philip Glass.
The lights dimmed and onstage action began at a glacial pace. The stage was awash in blueish grey, highlighted here and there by the occasional splash of red or golden yellow. Musical patterns gradually shifted, unfolding over extended periods of time, though by the second scene, the repetitive nature of the music had me trapped. Waves of musical notes washed over me, and I felt a brief panic, as if drowning in a sea of music. As I let go of fear, my mind and body relaxed and a contemplative state began to build. It was then that I was able to enjoy the performance, by giving into it, and letting go.
Due to the show’s length, the audience was permitted to enter and exit the theater at will, knowing that â€œEinsteinâ€ would be there upon return. Around midpoint, I meandered into the lobby to grab a snack but was struck by the oddness of doing so. I was not alone. Many people sat at bistro tables drinking coffee, tea, and wine as the performance resonated through the theater walls. It felt more like a cafe at a museum where visitors could relax and then reenter the gallery.
Feeling hungrier than a cookie could satisfy, I walked the half-block to Blondie’s Pizza. I felt in a trance, the music echoing in my mind while I mingled with the people on the street.
When I returned to my seat twenty minutes later, ballet dancers criss-crossed the stage in flowing beauty, providing a feminine balance to an otherwise masculine production. This new energy invigorated me to reach for my sketchbook. Drawing in near-dark conditions, I realized how visual the music was. The cascading notes formed a rich, solid mass like a tonal landscape on canvas.
At four hours of performance time, the show culminated with a whirlwind of sound, flashing visuals, and a rocket ship moving through space. But at the end, the show finished as quietly as it started. I felt exhausted but enlivened emotionally, creatively, and spiritually.