Photo of Antoine Silverman as Einstein

Image © Lucie Jansch, from http://www.barbican.org.uk

Two women sit at a desk, staring at us, motionless apart from their hands tracing quick rhythmic movements in the air. One is reciting poetry, the other interjecting a string of numbers, above a low-pitched organ hum. The woman reciting poetry is doing so in the pleasant but emotionally neutral tone of modern speech-synthesising software; the woman reciting numbers does so with humanity and expression in every one. Something is wrong: poetry woman starts to stutter – not a human stutter, but an android showing the first signs of malfunction. I don’t know what it means, but I’m gripped. And the performance proper hasn’t even begun yet.

Louise Jeffreys, Director of Programming at the Barbican, has commented that she had been waiting ten years to put on this work. Well, I’ve been waiting twenty to see it. I discovered Einstein on the Beach as an undergraduate, and immediately fell in love with it. I loved its emphasis on temporal structure, its almost-fractal patterns, its non-linear symbolism, and its utterly uncompromising nature – and all this just from the single (at the time) available audio recording. Being an undergraduate, the fact that most of my friends, and a large proportion of the music department, found it completely impenetrable and/or highly annoying could only add to the appeal. The first production was in 1976, and now, 36 years later, it has finally received its long-overdue UK premiere. Thank you to all concerned for making it happen!

Waiting expectantly outside the theatre, there was concern among us that it wouldn’t happen, as the start time was pushed back 15 minutes, then another 15. Seeing a new production, of course, one doesn’t know exactly what is missing or malfunctioning, but I gather there were various technical problems with aspects of the set and staging. These resulted in some odd gaps between scenes and an unscheduled interval after Act 1 – which, despite it going against the creators’ wishes, I didn’t mind, as it meant I didn’t have to miss a single note! (The whole thing is around five hours long, and there are no intervals, audience members being expected to quietly shuffle in and out as and when they require refreshment, etc.) On the subject of missing notes, there were just enough miniscule glitches – a finger slip here, an extra breath there, a tuning issue on flute (swiftly fixed, of course!) – to remind one that in contrast to today’s auditory world of hyper-produced sound and digitally-looped high-definition samples, here was pure live musicianship of astonishing virtuosity. As one would expect from a decades-long collaborator of Glass’s, conductor Michael Riesman’s control of the music was superb. Unfortunately he had no control over the lights on the music stands, and in the final scene (as far as I could tell) had to play for some time in the dark, while simultaneously yelling at the crew to sort it out.

With a lesser show, or lesser performers, these technical hitches could have significantly marred the performance. In this case, they were a small fly in a very large pot of ointment. In the Barbican’s Q&A event earlier in the week, Glass spoke of the musical demands this work makes on performers, and how some of the singers cast in the original production had considerable difficulty learning it, whereas today’s performers are expected to take such challenges within their stride. Indeed, contemporary groups like Synergy Vocals (regular collaborators with Steve Reich) have set the bar very high, but the Einstein chorus fulfilled and exceeded expectations, demonstrated most clearly in their flawless delivery of the fiendishly fast additive rhythms of the a capella Knee Play 3. Bed, the section of music most closely resembling a traditional operatic aria, was sung by American mezzo Hai-Ting Chinn; she seemed somewhat hesitant at first – a little unsteady, or perhaps just feeling the effects of an extremely long evening – but nevertheless showing real understanding and feel for the music (something missing, for example, in several of the soloists in the ENO’s 2010 Satyagraha). On the other hand, the jazz-influenced Building, previously always one of my least favourite scenes, was immeasurably lifted by Andrew Sterman’s gloriously raspy, soaring tenor saxophone solo.

Another interesting comment from Glass during the Q&A was that in previous runs of the show, he had found that – unlike in operas with linear plots – the emotional high points were in different places on different nights. For me, on this occasion, while the Spaceship scene was undoubtedly the most intense assault on the senses (and wonderful it was, too, even with incomplete staging), the emotional centres of the work were Night Train, featuring a silent, glacially-measured Helga Davis, followed by Trial/Prison, where Kate Moran repeated a short text over and over, with slightly different – and increasingly unhinged – expression every time. The last few words of this banal fragment, seemingly innocuous, are quite chilling in their sudden invoked subtext of nuclear war (the link being with Nevil Shute’s post-apocalyptic novel On The Beach). As the two Characters, Davis and Moran were masterpieces of non-narrative spoken and physical expression throughout, and violinist Antoine Silverman was believable as the scientist worrying about the implications of atomic physics while obsessively spiralling up and down scales. Trial One used the alternate (1984) speech – Charles Williams’ misogynist Old Judge viciously parodying the feminists who dared to demand equality for women, as opposed to the more benevolent sexism of the original text.

As someone familiar only with the music and libretto, seeing the work staged for the first time was an amazing experience. Having heard Wilson describe his preoccupation with structuring time and space through different kinds of light, the results of his creative vision and fine attention to detail were clear to see in a luminous palette and surreal edge that made me think of Dalí, particularly in Train One. The music occasionally contains sudden discrete changes of direction, but most progression is in almost imperceptible increments; these same structures applied throughout to the lighting, and to the movement of characters and objects. Particularly effective was the use of multiple concurrent speeds of movement between different individuals or groups; this also lead to brilliant visual diversions that made it possible suddenly to realise that while you were busy watching the Boy on Tower, or the Woman with Newspaper, a huge steam train had quietly crept onto stage. The one visual aspect which was significantly less engaging was the dance element. It is true I am no dance aficionado, but I do have an interest in the visual representation of numeric structures, and while the dancers’ steps and jumps corresponded neatly to micro changes in rhythm and harmony, I got no sense of the macro structure evident in all other aspects of the work.

Philip Glass’s style has been so frequently pastiched (or, shall we say, shamelessly ripped off?) for use with video, that – taken with the fact that he has been rather prolific in this field himself – it has become something of a little game, when watching TV science documentaries or psychological dramas, to bet on whether the score is Real or Fake Glass. The one thing that nobody has dared rip off, though, is the Einstein Chord Sequence – as immediately identifiable as the Tristan Chord. Flinging one back and forth between F minor and E major, courtesy of enharmonic pivot B♭♭ = A, the momentary emotional solidity of a IV – V – I cadence is repeatedly destroyed by the semitone shift up of the temporary tonic, creating a profoundly unsettling effect on the listener. The first occurrence (in the closing section of Train One), had such a hair-raising effect on me that it is only thanks to modern haircare products that I didn’t resemble an Einstein-style fright wig myself, and every single further occurrence was goosebump-inducing, including the eight-minute-long version at the end of Act 4.

Is it an opera? Not if you require your operas to have a coherent linear story, a title role who actually sings something, and more than one vocal aria. Otherwise, I don’t see why not. Robert Wilson has always described it as an opera, despite contentiously claiming in the (1985) film how he once “went to the opera – hated it!” (Interestingly, older Wilson, speaking earlier this week, was happy to reference Wagner on more than one occasion, in regard to temporal structuring in The Ring…)

Should you go? All the diehard Glass/Wilson fans dived for their tickets the minute booking opened last year, but at time of writing there are still some seats left for most performances. If you’re short of attention span, or have set ideas about how an opera should and should not be (see above), probably not. Otherwise, give it a try – it could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see this seminal work. And it’s even acceptable to wander out of the auditorium for a drink and chat whenever you feel like a break.

At what point should you take your caffeine-and-comfort break? I’d suggest during Dance 1 or 2. Under no circumstances be away during Train One or Spaceship, and do also try to avoid missing any of the abstract but lovely Knee Plays.

[Review written for and reproduced here with the kind permission of Opera Britannia.]