Robert Wilson and Philip Glass met unintentionally at a party which followed the performance of Wilson’s theatrical creation The Life and Times of Josef Stalin. After a brief conversation, the two agreed to meet again for lunch—an occurrence which became habitual for the pair. During these lunches Wilson and Glass began brainstorming and their ideas eventually developed into the skeleton of the “portrait opera” Einstein on the Beach. One interesting and important aspect of Wilson and Glass’s relationship is the spontaneous chemistry which existed between them. From determining the title of the opera, to the subject matter, to the idea of targeting the audience’s subjective biases, Glass and Wilson had an unspoken way of agreeing on creative decisions. In his book Music by Philip Glass, Glass describes how his ideas naturally meshed with those of Wilson:
…it never occurred to us that Einstein on the Beach would have a story or contain anything like an ordinary plot. Bob, by then, had done a series of large theater works which, by their titles at least, were based on the lives of famous persons. But how that title character appeared in the work could, in the end, be very abstract.
From this quotation, we can see how the similar thoughts on theater which existed between Glass and Wilson helped propel the creation of the opera. The quotation also segues into how Wilson and Glass decided to approach the meaning and subject matter of Einstein on the Beach.
When first deciding the main theme of Einstein on the Beach, Wilson would present an idea like Hitler and Glass would decide no, countering with Ghandi as the main theme. This juggling back and forth continued for a while until Wilson came up with the idea of Einstein. Immediately Glass liked Einstein as a main theme because most people already know at least something about Einstein. Understanding this, Wilson and Glass developed a “portrait opera” which does not have a coherent plot and has minimal story development. Eschewing the standard ways of story and opera, the creators of Einstein on the Beach used images which had a connection, regardless of how tangential, to Einstein. Using the style of a portrait opera already developed by Wilson, Glass and Wilson depended on the audience’s subjective knowledge to create their own meaning, guided by the imagery on stage, about the opera. I find the use of portrait opera to be interesting and unique, even by today’s standards. We could perhaps even draw a connection between Glass’s dependence on the audience to fill in the story of Einstein on the Beach to the impressionistic style of art prominent during the 20th century, which also used an indirect and ambiguous way of conveying meaning to the audience.
Of all the logistics surrounding the production and performance of Einstein on the Beach, two things stood out most to me. First, the premiere of EOTB was in Paris at the Avignon Festival in August of 1976. With the arrangements made by Michel Guy, any future performances of the opera depended on successful execution of the play and a positive reaction from the audience. Thankfully, the performers were unaware of this pressure. The second striking aspect of performance was the preparation schedules for the performance. Glass and Wilson held rehearsals five days a week (which eventually became six) that lasted over 9hrs each day and divided the work-day into three hour blocks, one for choreography, one for the music, and one for stage movements. This intense rehearsal schedule also ties into the musical procedures of the opera. Glass composed the music of EOTB using techniques he had been developing which extended back to his work on Samuel Beckett’s Play. These techniques, additive process and cyclic structure, would take a number of notes and repeat them for a specified number of times and eventually add another note for the same process to be repeated again. Because cyclic structures were relatively foreign to the performers, along with the length of the opera, Glass chose to use a method he learned from Ravi Shankar while studying tabla to teach the performers of EOTB. Each day Glass would teach the performers a small portion of the music and then the next day they would review the previous material learned before moving on to new material. One last interesting aspect of the music of EOTB was that, initially, Glass had the performers learn the music using numbers and solfege as a memorization aid. Eventually these numbers and syllables became so ingrained that Glass decided to keep the solfege and counting in the final product.
After reading through the libretto one of the most obvious ideas regarding the text is the lack of continuity or plot. Instead, it seems, the authors of each portion used a similar process for the words as Glass used for the music. Many of the words and phrases throughout each portion of the libretto are repeated with some words being added and some being removed which imitates the additive process of the music that adds a note for a number of repeats and then adds another note. It also appears that the number of syllables in each portion takes precedence over the content of the words. One could argue that nonsense words could be inserted instead of real words, as long as the number of syllables remained the same, and the opera would not lose any important material. Two of the few coherent portions of the libretto were contributed by a man characterized by an air of sophistication: Samuel Johnson. This elderly man composed and delivered two speeches during the play which spoke of lovers sitting on a bench and the feeling which Paris imparts upon its visitors.