Are you ready for a 4½-hour opera consisting of a hypnotically pulsing score and precisely no story? The man sitting next to me at the Barbican Theatre's production of Einstein on the Beach certainly was. Around the two-hour mark, as we watched a troupe of dancers spinning in precise formation that may (or may not) have been inspired by the movement of atoms, he took out a small sandwich and began eating it quietly, never taking his eyes from the stage.
He barely moved once during composer Philip Glass and director Robert Wilson's epoch-defining opera, while around us patrons came and went at will. (There is no intermission, but people are free to leave and re-enter the auditorium.) My seatmate was transfixed, and with good reason. The piece is transporting, though not entirely easy for audiences hooked on the constant adrenalin drip of modern storytelling.
Is Toronto ready for the Canadian premiere of this trippy feast of non-linearity? ( Einstein on the Beach arrives at the Luminato Festival on June 8 for three performances.) To paraphrase its co-creator, a man who nearly went broke giving birth to the opera 36 years ago: Hell, yeah. "It's an alternative," says Wilson, "and people are looking for alternatives."
That might mean freeing ourselves from an addiction to narrative, as Wilson has in theatrical work: His first major piece was a silent, seven-hour play. As we talk, he's being driven to the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., where he's giving a lecture. He is also watching clouds trail across the late-spring sky: "I'm experiencing the clouds," he says in his slow Texas drawl, "but they don't have to mean anything. … If you go to see [ Einstein]expecting to understand, you'll get up and leave, because there's nothing to understand. It's something you experience."
"It's a poet's vision of Einstein," says Glass, over the phone from New York. (Both creators will be in Toronto for the premiere.) "Bob and I didn't make up a story, although people see it and come up with interpretations – it's science on trial, or whatever. We never did."
This might make it sound like the viewer should bring some peyote to enhance the experience, but never fear: Einstein on the Beach, which made its American debut to standing ovations and rapturous applause at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1976, is captivating.
Trying to describe it, however, is a bit like telling a blind person what the colour magenta looks like. A man who could be Einstein plays a violin at the front of the stage; a troupe of dancers twirl in geometric shapes, the precision choreography of Lucinda Childs; a choir sings the mathematical notation of Glass's score; there are texts written by Wilson's collaborator, the autistic poet Christopher Knowles, references to Patty Hearst and David Cassidy, as well as trains and murders and spaceships and a boy with a luminous cube. And possibly the end of the world. It's hard to tell.
For an opera that so resolutely rejects storytelling, the story of the opera is pretty amazing. In 1974, two boy wonders of the experimental New York art scene found each other and decided to work together. First they chose a subject, and having discarded Hitler and Charlie Chaplin, settled on Einstein. The original title was Einstein on the Beach on Wall Street.
They chose a length for the piece, between four and five hours, and began to flesh it out: "'We started with the structure and then we filled it in, like an architect designs a building," says Wilson. "Then we began to occupy the building." Wilson created a series of images inspired by Einstein and based on classical modes of painting – portraits for scenes close to the audience, still lifes for action in the middle distance, landscapes for scenes set deep upstage – and Glass put them to music.
Einstein on the Beach was first performed at France's Festival d'Avignon in the summer of 1976 to an audience that Glass remembers as composed of wildly enthusiastic young fans, "and some older people, who thought, 'What the hell is this?' " Four months later, with no New York rehearsals, it was staged at the Met, a sold-out event that was replicated eight years later when it was re-mounted at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Einstein on the Beach quickly became the avant-garde's Woodstock – that is, anyone who is anyone claims to have seen it.
Despite the rapturous Met reception, the production was ruinously expensive, forcing Wilson and Glass into debt. "We were stupid," Glass says. "We didn't realize that operas lose money." He returned to his money-making job, driving a New York cab. Wilson lost a vast amount of money, and says: "It took me about four or five years to pay for it. I had huge debts, but somehow we survived."
Each of the rare productions since has been more expensive, which may explain why Einstein, despite its reputation, is so seldom staged. Of course, there are those who think its reputation is inflated; the physicist has no clothes, so to speak. While some critics wrote glowingly about the Barbican production last month, others were less kind. "Flatulently pretentious" and "asphyxiatingly tedious," wrote the Daily Telegraph reviewer. And his colleague at the Sunday Telegraph noted, "the experience is cleansing enough, if sometimes in a colonic irrigation sort of way."
Another explanation might simply be that audiences, and opera houses, are now too conservative for this bit of free-thinking experimentalism. "The piece is as progressive now as it was then," says Glass. "It's a curious thing about Einstein. It staked out a new frontier, and I thought lots of people would join us there, but in fact there were very few. What happened is that theatre actually went backwards."
Yet Glass says he noticed something interesting during performances on the current world tour: Rather than being distracted by their various blinking devices and teeny attention spans, theatregoers – like my sandwich-eating seatmate – were happy to sit in one place, and concentrate, and be transported. "I was astonished at how people were willing to stay," he says. "Maybe they were asleep; I have no idea. But they did stay."
Einstein on the Beach will be performed at Toronto's Sony Centre on Friday, Saturday (June 9) and Sunday (June 10)as part of Luminato (luminato.com).