Seminar: Einstein on the Beach
by Tom Lady
“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.” ~Albert Einstein
The first day of autumn was a postcard-perfect Sunday that saw approximately 80 opera enthusiasts take the elevator to the top floor of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. They were taking an afternoon break from all that sunshine to get the skinny on Einstein on the Beach, LA Opera’s second opus of the 2013-14 season.
The guest speaker was Kristy Edmonds, artistic and executive director of CAP UCLA (Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, formerly UCLA Live!). She was the “best speaker possible” on this topic, according to our favorite seminar moderator, Allan Edmiston. Not only has Kristy been involved with Einstein since the 1996 launch of its revival in Avignon, France, she was hands down one of the most articulate lecturers we’d heard in some time. “Well said!” was a common refrain during the afternoon.
Citing Philip Glass as a mentor, Kristy framed the birth of Einstein in the context of New York of the sixties and seventies, a time when the Big Apple was the hub of pan-arts experimentation and envelope pushing.
To supplement her talk, she showed excerpts of a documentary chronicling a 1984 mounting of Einstein that was part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival. The footage added up to an illustration of how Philip Glass and Robert Wilson were advancing the fence line for their disciplines: music, dance, theater and opera.
Kristy also hammered home the technical and physical demands of the opera’s very deliberate pace, a pace that “takes us into the tapestry of the work’s creation,” as she put it. And yet it could “take” you at a different point than the person next to you. That was a recurring theme about this opera, the personalized experience it creates for each viewer. Your epiphany and your intermission will be unique to you. The second half of the seminar was primarily a Q&A during which Kristy expostulated on earlier points while quelling concerns about the four-and-a-half-hour running time. “From what I’ve heard, you didn’t have a problem with the Ring Cycle.” We all got a laugh out of that one. Well played, Kristy!
In response to a question about the “Beach” of the title, Kristy explained that it referred to the beach setting where atomic bombs were usually tested. That underscores the other theme of the opera, the mundane outcomes of scientific advances, like prematurely air conditioned supermarkets.
Kristy brought it all home by saying we are now at a generational moment when more people than ever before are getting to see Einstein on the Beach. Even more poignantly, with the three principal architects of this piece—Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, and Lucinda Childs—all in their golden years, it’s a near certainty that LAO’s staging, the last of this revival, will be the final staging they will ever see. We, the audience, will become the “permanent collection of this work, the natural living archive of this exchange.”