Theory of Relativity: Director Robert Wilson on Einstein on the Beach
A long opera with no plot, Einstein on the Beach is the brainchild of Philip Glass and director Robert Wilson. Both are insatiable workaholics and this 1974 piece, produced early in their careers, was a chance to properly devour their multiplatform dreams. Working first with choreographer Andrew deGroat, and later Lucinda Childs, Wilson and Glass created an unexpected hit that, despite and because of its kookiness, became the impetus for much of Glass’ renown. Thirty-six years after it premiered, Einstein on the Beach is still really weird. Wilson is reviving the opera abroad this year, before it comes home to New York in the fall at BAM. He spoke about working with Glass, Einstein’s history and its future.
What did you think about the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Einstein on the Beach then, and what do you think about it now? The Met premiere of Einstein was important for different reasons. For one, the performance took Phil Glass’ music and my work and put it in a major culture center of the United States. Until that time, the kind of work we were doing was thought to be best seen in a loft or a gallery space in downtown Manhattan. I wanted the work to be seen within the traditional repertory of opera. In this, the production established Phil’s career as a composer.
It should be known that the Byrd Hoffman Foundation produced Einstein and paid off the debt incurred and not the Metropolitan Opera. The Met simply let us rent the house on their dark night. Einstein brought a new audience to Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera that had never been there before. The ticket prices were suddenly affordable for more people. I scaled the tickets [to range] from two dollars to 2000 dollars. And I put the two dollars seats in the orchestra next to the two thousand dollar seats. We sold out in a few days. For this revival, the Met chose not to produce Einstein. I think the work is still too radical for them. In some ways, the times in which we live are more conservative than they were in 1976. In New York, we are doing the production at BAM.
How has Einstein on the Beach changed since its premiere? Einstein has changed because it has been adapted to a new cast of performers. Today, Glass’ music is better known. It speaks to anelectronic-minded generation of young people. The lights that are used in theater are different; there are now LED, halogen and HMI lights, which are much colder than incandescent lights.
The original choreography was by Andy deGroat and was performed by nine dancers. These people also were the chorus that sang. Now we have professional singers and choreography by Lucinda Childs being performed by trained dancers. Childs choreographed both the 1984 and 1992 revivals. Also, originally, I danced the “flashlight dance” in the last scene of the fourth act in a dance/movement role. I’m not trained as a dancer. Now it’s performed by a trained dancer so the edges are different.
What were some of the major ideas about performance you took from creating Einstein with Philip Glass? Einstein has no narrative, no story. There are no answers. It’s a work in which one experiences the events that are onstage and in the orchestra pit. As Susan Sontag said, “to experience something is a way of thinking.” It’s like watching a sunset or a landscape that is moving and changing. There’s no implied message. In this way, it’s very different from all of what I see in theater and opera today where a message is being conveyed and people are expected to understand every 30 seconds. Einstein is a completely different experience.
What are your favorite things about working with Glass? I like working with him because we think alike. He shares a common sense of time. I like being in his company because we can laugh a lot, and I consider him a close friend.
How is working with him different from working with other collaborators? Phil is gifted in that he thinks easily on a large scale. He can see the totality of a work quickly in terms of math and structure. In Einstein, he combines a wonderful balance between a classical structure and, at times, a romantic feeling for music.
How do you feel about Einstein’s upcoming revival? Is it still an exciting piece to produce? Did you foresee its longevity? Does it feel dated to you? I really won’t know what to think about Einstein today until we do it. But I think when we made it, there was much more happening in the arts, in the plastic arts but especially in terms of theater, music and dance. The works that I see now, for the most part, are much more conservative.