“Einstein on the Beach” previews in Ann Arbor, Michigan

A week after seeing a preview performance of Einstein on the Beach and there’s still this feeling of having taken a trip to a 1976 sci-fi time capsule. An operatic spaceship. It was a four-hour train ride from Chicago to the Power Center at the University of Michigan, a venue that in mid-January was home to epic rehearsals of the show. “There’s no doubt about it,” wrote the University Musical Society in fervent pre-show emails. “This is a seriously historic moment.” Historic, yes, but like visiting a sepia-colored dream of some NASA engineer–after a particularly long day pushing buttons in big glasses and a comb-over. Smart, beautiful, disorienting, dated.

A lot of that has to do with the set. The biggest pieces roll onstage in grey plywood slabs, from the wings, with haze and smoke billowing out around them. Prison bars made of ribbons dangle from the battens and billow slightly from the gust of passing performers. Most of the color is flat shades of white, black and grey, with very little blending, and even when we are presented with the representation of an actual building, there’s no attempt to, say, carve a faux stone façade from Styrofoam. We’re very obviously looking at a painted backdrop. Even a giant wall of chasing light bulbs is literally made of old-school yellow globes, not something more modern like LEDs. And yet, that the setting looks like it came out of a Theater History Textbook contributes to its other-worldliness, and its modern meaning.

The scenic accuracy is deliberate. It’s been 20 years since the last re-staging of Einstein on the Beach. There was one in 1984, and again in 1992, when I was 5 and 13, respectively. Creators Robert Wilson, Phillip Glass and Lucinda Childs collaborated to ensure the creation of an accurate re-staging of the original. The work has been the subject of a PBS documentary and is said to have changed perception of modern opera.

This is clear from the production in a number of ways. That the endurance required from the performers is astounding. That aspects of its composition seem tired at this point, having been aggressively adopted into modern opera. That the whole piece is basically a 4.5 hour mental workout, demanding that you stay engaged while challenging you with endless looping chants of numbers, non-narrative speeches, robotic gestures, and straight-out goofiness.

In one of the strongest sequences of the piece, featured performer Kate Moran repeats a line describing an experience in a supermarket: “There were these bathing caps you could buy that had these kind of Fourth of July plumes on them,” while slowly moving through space, changing costumes. In the original production, Childs was the featured performer who recited these lines on loop. In this production, Moran owns the text. I never got tired of hearing those lines–with every repetition, the inflection and meaning would change. Sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically, always engaging.

The same is true, to a certain extent, of Glass’ music, in which choruses sing numbers that blend into sentences and words. It’s a little bit like listening to a kaleidoscope. The chorus sings from the pit, from a jury box onstage, in amorphous groups. Everyone wears suspenders, a white dress shirt, and slacks—an outfit stereotypical for Einstein and absolutely ridiculous for anyone else.

So here I am, sitting in a theater of a marathon length of time, watching a work with sets that look like they came out of a vault, everyone’s wearing suspenders and singing numbers, and the lead violinist is actually dressed like Einstein. People are puffing their cheeks out and reciting nonsensical phrases. There is a court scene. There is a caboose scene. There are several dance sequences. There is a visual theme of a bright white line. And all throughout, people are getting up to go to the bathroom as is necessary, because there isn’t any intermission.

It feels both glorious and totally insane—like a dream.

Which is kind of the point. In the PBS documentary, Wilson speaks of the work as depicting character, not narrative. Glass talks about trusting visual and psychological associations with Einstein as a basis for the work. Both acknowledge the German physicist as a powerful, almost godlike presence in their culture. With this devoted re-staging of Einstein on the Beach, Glass and Wilson claim their own territory within the word “godlike,” and the production celebrates not Einstein but the machinations and developments of its lead artists.

With just cause. Ever watch an old movie and think “Well, this is kind of cliché,” and then realize “Wait a minute—this is the thing that MADE the clichés”? That’s what watching Einstein on the Beach is like, for some of us who didn’t grow up in the atomic age, but are instead living in its hangover. For some of us who are familiar with the visual machinations of contemporary opera. For some of us who read about Wilson in our college textbooks and have seen Phillip Glass become the subject of sketch comedy. It comes with a kind of smirking respect. Like when you’re grateful for the incredible sacrifice your grandparents made but wish they’d stop talking about themselves at the dinner table.

So if coming back from this opera is like emerging from a 1976 Time Spaceship, it’s worth the trip, if only to appreciate the contributions of works past and the developments in the field since then. Makes you want to kiss the ground. A little.

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