December 10, 2018

‘Einstein on the Beach’ finally hits L.A.’s shore

The 1976 premiere of “Einstein on the Beach” shook audiences up, recalling the shock at Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” in 1913. There was something incomprehensible, even infuriating, about Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s “Einstein,” but in spite of that — or perhaps, in part, because of it — the work became a landmark, challenging and enlarging traditional ideas and conventions of opera, theater and dance. 

Glass called “Einstein” a “non-narrative,” and the work’s nonlinear text was partly inspired by a neurologically challenged man. Along with director-designer Wilson’s evocative lighting, the production relies on carefully chosen images as a structuring device. It also includes abstract dance sequences and a mesmerizing score by Glass.

Combined, these elements created an epic, hypnotic journey into the unconscious for some — and an annoying, pointless exercise for others. The five-hour opera also has no formal intermission, something even the limits-testing Wagner never attempted. 

Despite all this, the musical and visual architecture of “Einstein” still appeals and provokes on profound multiple levels, and revivals continue to roll out.

The latest ends its international tour with its much belated Los Angeles premiere, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion the weekend of Oct. 11-13 under the auspices of Los Angeles Opera and UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance.

Why did it take so long for “Einstein” to come to Los Angeles? 

“ ‘Einstein on the Beach’ is a dream long deferred both for Angelenos and for L.A. Opera specifically, which has been involved in this conversation for almost seven years,” Christopher Koelsch, the company’s president and chief executive officer, said by phone from his downtown office.

But Koelsch added that Glass’ longtime producer, Linda Brumbach, “deserves most of the credit” for keeping the opera on track for Los Angeles. “She had the tenacity to absorb the blow,” he said, when plans for a 30th anniversary “Einstein” revival fell apart in 2005-06. 

“My company, Pomegranate Arts, has been working on this current revival for the last 15 years,” Brumbach wrote in an e-mail from Helsinki, Finland. “It took 37 years, but bringing ‘Einstein on the Beach’ to Los Angeles has been a dream for the creative team since they originally created the work.”

Brumbach pointed out that “Einstein on the Beach” requires a touring company of 65 people, including a highly accomplished design team, a touring technical crew, the Lucinda Childs Dance Company, featured actors who are not themselves opera singers, as well as the Philip Glass Ensemble and a virtuoso solo violinist.

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