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Performers in the opera Einstein on the Beach.

Einstein on the Beach: An (Always) New Operatic Proposal


A new production of “Einstein on the Beach”, Philip Glass’ famous opera.

One of the most distinctive characteristics of great works of art, those that we can undeniably consider classics –according to Italo Calvino’s definition of the term–, is their inexhaustible ability to always say something new to us.

In terms of the opera, the latter is extremely patent. In recent years, the opera houses of the world have witnessed bold productions that dare to play with visual and dramatic effects, sometimes radically modifying the traditional presentation guidelines established by their authors.

Why is it possible to do this without altering the message conveyed by these operas? Perhaps because their essence is not entirely subjected to circumstances and contingency, because, it wants an idea of humanism, the genius of art and the artist consists, to a great extent, in recovering those elements that remain inalterable in the human being, regardless of the era and place that these belong to.

This preamble is meant to introduce a new production of Einstein on the Beach, Philip Glass’s celebrated opera, which first opened in 1975.

Although Glass is a composer much closer to our times than those of the traditional operatic canon, his Einstein on the Beach has only been presented four times —in the 1970s, 1980s, (1984 and 1988), in 1992 (a tour that began in Princeton then visited Frankfurt, Melbourne, Barcelona, Madrid, Tokyo and Paris) and then once again in 2010.

This is partly due to the cutting edge, fragmentary, structure of the work, which has a libretto that, unlike traditional pieces, does not follow a linear structure, but instead uses one of Glass’ most representative resources: the “Knee Plays”, interludes or intermezzis, which last about minutes and are interpreted by synthesizers, electric organs, saxophones, and texts that, instead of dialogues, contain numbers, poetic quotes and solfege syllables.

Thus, in this context, the construction of the story lies in the hands of the viewer — a story where Einstein’s figure, although present in the title also seems incidental and dispensable. Robert Wilson, Glass’ collaborator in the opera’s first mis en scéne, commented some time ago that: “in a sense, there was no reason to tell a story, because we already knew the story. How this man–who was a pacifist–also contributed to the splitting of the atom.”

In a way this is a matter of narratives. In the case of Einstein on the Beach, we could say that, paraphrasing the title of a Milan Kundera novel, the narrative is elsewhere. They lie in his impressive visual and architectural apparatus, in the collaboration between space and sound which Glass skillfully planned, in the eccentricity of the montage and will of the bodies moving on the stage.

And, like any intellectual puzzle, the reward is gratifying, that pleasure that accompanies the challenge set by the enigma itself —which in Einstein on the Beach is mental and aesthetic.

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