Sunday, May 13, 2012

Einstein on the Beach - Opera at the Barbican

When looking through the London culture calendars for an event which I could attend during my three-day work-related stay in London at the 2nd weekend in May, I found that the opera "Einstein on the Beach" would be performed during that time. This sounded interesting, and I was in the mood for something contemporary, instead of "the usual" museal 19th and 20th century regurgitation of classical music works which I already knew by heart. So without much further research, I booked a ticket online.

The composer of the music is Philip Glass. I do not know much of his music oevre, but I knew that he is a proponent of "minimal music", in contrast to "maximal music" (such as by Mahler for example). One of his compositions I had enjoyed many years ago: the music to the film Koyaanisqatsi from 1982, which at that time I actually saw in a movie theatre. This film and the music had impressed me very much, the rhythms and cycles of nature and man-made world were excellently visualized - and Glass put this into his repetitive minimal-music very fittingly. So I expected something similar to be in this opera. It was also announced as being plot-less, which I was looking forward to.

This opera had been written in 1976, together with Robert Wilson, who seems to be a nice bloke - even has his own Facebook page (btw, also Philip Glass has his own page on Facebook). The opera is supposed to show scenes from the world of Albert Einstein; a summary of this work can be read on Wikipedia. This production is now going around on a tour through Europe, and now was for the first time in the UK.

So I went into the theater with high expectations. I had never before been to the Barbican; on the map it looked like a park with some lakes, but when I came closer, following the signs, I realized that there was no natural park, but instead there was an assembly of thick straight concrete buildings, placed around a rectangular pond. A typical 1970s architecture, dark, already weathered concrete, a far cry from the current post-modern design-fetishist decorative architectural style that pops up everywhere. But honest in its purpose-ness - no false pretenses, and I actually like the spatial arrangement and proximity of residential areas with a culture center.

The performance was scheduled to be 5 hours, without intermission; so I had a bottle of water with me and a few cheese sticks. The theater was filled almost completely. Already while the audience was taking their seats, the "performance" had begun: a few performers outside of the curtain area did some counting.

Then the curtain went up, and the action began. First I enjoyed the visuals, the movements of the actors, the never-ending music. But then I got lost somewhere, as things began to be repetitive, stretched-out in time, and veeeery slow. There appeared no connection, no reason for why the actors were doing what they were doing. This went on through all the acts. Some of the lighting and the effects were quite nice, but to me this appeared to be just a very meaningless aestheticism, instead of a true meaningful scenario (which for example Koyaanisqatsi did have). I was not missing any plot, but was missing a coherence. The only reference to Einstein was that a guy who supposedly looked like him (actually he looked more like old Edvard Grieg), sat at the side of the stage and played a violin, the same few notes for more than half an hour. In the main stage, there was twice the scene of a trial, but it was not clear who against whom, and what the crime was. Some trivialities in the text "these are the days, my friends, these are the days. My friends. These are the days..." and similar. Maybe quite shocking to a 1970s audience, but today, where was the punch? Other highlights of the texts are the singing of numbers, or singing "do re mi fa so..." to the notes. However, in one part they were actually wrong (appeared to be a minor scale instead of a major) - they should have studied the "Sounds of Music" better where this was done correctly.

Twice there were dance scenes, which actually worked quite well, together with Glass' music. But the second time it appeared a bit repetitive, showing in principle the same dance movements as before.

The final scene had some gigantic machine being operated by people. What was that machine? What were the symbols that were shown? Do these circles mean anything? Yes, it looked nice and impressive, but for what purpose?

What I would have expected to see: a plot-less visualisation and musification of some aspects of Einstein's theories. Relativity would be a very rich theory which has plenty of things to show. Time travel. Atomic structure. And those "Gedanken-Experimente" which Einstein often made to illustrate things, for example what if a train travels at the speed of light, and one walks in the train... there is plenty of interesting stuff! But none of that was seen in the opera. No reference to it, no hint. Instead, there was just some empty monologue, repetitive, deliberately meaningless, given by often robotic figures. It appeared that everything was just there for a plain, vain, visual aesthetic effect. And for nothing else. And that is a pity. There was much more potential, in the topic, in the music, in the staging, but this potential was not realized. Musically there was actually a highlight: there was a solo for saxophone, followed by a short piece for organ. And here Glass did show that he indeed can be a master of modulations which do not simply have to be repeated forever, but which actually go somewhere. This appeared to be the musical climax - but nothing was made of it in the stage play and the libretto.

After the first hour, I slowly fell asleep for a few times, either due to the hypnotic character of Glass' music, or due to the uninspiring stagnant development on the stage, or simple because two full days of work meetings had taken their toll on my ability to concentrate. But, according to Glass himself, it is ok to fall asleep during this work, because when one wakes up, the work will still be going on. And I would add: not much would have been missed, as there would not have any progression have happened on stage.

There was another highlight, although not on the stage: in the audience, one elderly women took out her iphone and did some texting. I had switched off my phone, out of courtesy to others, but her activity appeared encouraging. Then she did something that I was actually also itching to do: she took a few pictures of the stage action. This was expressively forbidden, but the rebel in me approved her action (although not going as far as getting my own phone out and following her example). Behind her there was a younger woman, who did not approve: she tapped on her shoulder and talked into the older woman's ear, probably telling her that she should not do this. But the woman continued, took a few more pictures. The young woman then seemed to get more aggressive: she leaned forward and wanted actually to take the iPhone out of the other woman's hand! Cat fight! But the older woman just bent more forward and continued, ignoring the young aggressive one behind her. Then she stopped and put the phone away. This little episode had more drama and entertaining value than the whole opera!

Maybe my mind is just too small to understand the intellectual significance of this opera. It appeared that most of the audience, in contrast to myself, did have the mental capacity for this: there were standing ovations and loud applause, many of the audience having a face glowing with enthusiastic praise. I then joined in with the applause, not for the opera, but for the cast, who actually gave a remarkable performance.

Maybe next time when searching for a music event, I will go to one of those museal 19th and 20th century regurgitation of classical music works which I already knew by heart.