Relatively speaking – Einstein on the Beach

I saw the trailer above after seeing the opera – or at least the bits of the opera where I wasn’t outside in the foyer throwing espresso down my neck – and it came as a relief to know that I wasn’t supposed to understand it.  This is not my first Phillip Glass opera – Husband and I went to see Satyagraha a couple of years ago as well – so I was up for the hypnotic arpeggios and the libretto that no one understands and the rest of it.

Within 10 minutes of the start the stage holds a boy on a gantry, alternately throwing paper aeroplanes or holding a glowing cube, a woman walking back and forth while throwing shapes with her arms, a man marked as special because he wears a red shirt (everyone else in the cast wears black, grey or white for the rest of the performance)who might be miming something at a blackboard or might not and a large, spotlit conch shell. My mind was scrambling for purchase: perhaps lady with the arms is the sea? And perhaps RedShirt is Einstein, and he’s remembering how as a boy he used to make paper planes and hold cubes, as we all do at the seaside?

No. You have to put such thoughts away. It does not make sense, and it isn’t meant to, and the sooner you abandon analytical thought, the happier you will be. There will be points where you’re sure someone is trying to signal something to you: aha, a train, a clock, this is about Einstein, it’s all coming together, but then you’re back with a witness in a trial telling you about the display of bathing caps she saw in a “prematurely airconditioned supermarket”, and no, it’s time to let go and let the thing flow over you.

The programme does its bit to prepare you for this: the interview with Phillip Glass included talks about how this is an abstract opera, and how he expects people this time round won’t know what to make of it much like they didn’t in the seventies. I don’t know if you’ve ever spent much time on Flickr, but when I used to, there was a group dedicated to collecting abstract photographs, and the moderators were hilariously strict about their definition of ‘abstract’ and pictures that were insufficiently abstract were yanked out of the group before you could say Mondrian. Now I don’t want to set myself up as as qualified as those good people, and who am I to tell Phillip Glass and Robert Wilson that their abstract opera isn’t abstract, but it isn’t. Much of it is haunting in the way that a half-remembered dream is, where people you know act in ways you don’t understand in places you do understand – file under ‘surreal’.

It has made more of an impression on me than I realised at the time – the standing ovations at the performance I saw were well deserved as the musicians, dancers and actors all gave astounding performances, but while everyone else was leaping to their feet I was still dazed from four-and-a-half hours of numbers and so-fa-ti-do and insanely repetitive dance and guns and trains. I’m not sure that I’d call it life-changing. The Guardian review talks about it being ‘old-fashioned’. I have a hunch that I can’t prove that many of the things that would have been surprising about Einstein on the Beach have been diluted for people who’ve grown up since. Art that refuses to explain its meaning or whether it has meaning which is not immediately and intuitely pleasing is all over the place: you might find it institutionalised at the Tate Modern. I’d guess that the opportunities for surrender to repetitive, flowing, ‘meaning-free’ music were far fewer at the time as well – not that anyone was jigging around at the Barbican, but I do think that electronic music now provides some of what the opera might have done originally. Meanwhile, the sound of Phillip Glass’s music is now so familiar that we all know the Glass knock-knock joke. I enjoyed it just enough that I still want to see Akhenaten (it’s a Pharoah! who invented a Sun God! and moved his capital to the middle of nowhere!) but once I’ve done the trilogy I think I’ll feel that my very rare opera visits should really be shared out across composers a bit more. Meanwhile if you’ve missed out on tickets, why not console yourself with Glass’s Symphony for Eight?

Other people thought:

Classical Iconoclast

Life in the Cheap Seats (very useful practical tips in surviving 4.5 hours of opera)

Gareth James

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