‘Einstein on the Beach’ mesmerizes Zellerbach

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Writing a review of “Einstein on the Beach” is a  profound challenge. The opera is hailed as one of the crowning artistic achievements of the 20th century and remains among the most important contributors to modern performance culture. And yet, despite the glitz and glamor surrounding the opera, the endless strings of praise and justification, the piece is perhaps most well known as a long and tiring 4.5 hours.

To say that “Einstein on the Beach” is not enjoyable would be underdeveloped. To say that it is at times quite trying would be a more accurate depiction. This interesting little paradox is perhaps best illustrated in the play’s ticket sales.

Following Friday night’s performance, many audience members became so attached to the show that they battled the public for the remainder of the following night’s tickets, some ultimately doling out upwards of $500 on the performance. Yet at Saturday’s showing, when I turned to gauge the sold-out Zellerbach audience midperformance, the audience looked less like a crowd of opera aficionados and more like a group naptime for the baby-boomer generation.

The extreme discrepancy between these two realities is certainly a puzzling conundrum and one for which I have no answer. And so, necessarily, we turn to the facts.

“Einstein on the Beach” was born in 1976 to the same cultural doldrum that produced disco fever. It is the avant-garde brainchild of composer Philip Glass, director Robert Wilson and choreographer Lucinda Childs and started as only a minimalist operatic score. The opera explores the prevalence of certain cult images, routines and hard data. Otherwise, it lacks any plot or narrative-driven motives.Though very few people have actually seen the full production, and even fewer are actively aware of it’s popular influence, the piece’s introduction of minimalism into the operatic vernacular and inventive style made “Einstein” to the 1970’s performance world what Andy Warhol was to visual art and David Bowie to music.

The current tour of “Einstein on the Beach” marks the opera’s first return to the stage in 20 years. Retaining essentially the same aesthetic format as the original, with changes coming primarily from advancements in set design, the piece is still nearly five hours in length without any designated intermissions. The length and pace of the opera gives it an intentional drag, requiring an incredible feat of attention span on the part of the audience as  repetitive sequences, ranging from minor twitches to major leaps become absolutely exhausting for audience and actor alike. And so the world’s most expensive naptime commenced.

And now back to our conundrum. Perhaps “Einstein on the Beach” is so frustrating because while the aesthetic is still strange, it is no longer new or shocking. To say that the piece has served its role in the history of performance is an understatement. Yet, perhaps it has transformed the landscape of that world to such an extent that the performance’s  own presence fizzles in comparison. Is it possible for a spark to extinguish itself over the course of a couple decades?

The answer: no, not necessarily, not strictly. Because despite this disconnect, we, the audience come back wanting more. And so my final theory: Perhaps “Einstein on the Beach” was never meant to be enjoyed. Perhaps it is meant to be suffered through by generations alike in order to make its point. And perhaps there is a deeper purpose worthy of suffering for. Because in moments, when the repetition subsides, “Einstein on the Beach” breaks through with a flash. And after waiting in agony for five hours for the repeats to cease, hypnotic and tired, the end lands with such power that every napping baby boomer is pushed to tears.

So we line up and pay for more frustration, dollar for dollar, and somehow for a moment the paradox makes sense.

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