State Opera of SA: Einstein on the beach

I didn’t know if it were possible to see State Opera of South Australia’s Einstein on the beach without comparing it to the original Wilson-Glass-Childs production (which toured to Melbourne in 1992 and 2013: both were sublime), but it was such a different experince that comparisons are irrelevant.

Einstein on the Beach. State Opera
Photo by Bernard Hull

Einstein is the second part of the Phillip Glass Trilogy being presented by State Opera (with Akhnaten and Satyagraha). They are the first company to present the trilogy as a cycle and one of a tiny handful of companies that Glass has trusted with his operas.

Leigh Warren, as director and choreographer, approached it as a dance work about Einstein’s E=mc2 and the theory of relativity. It’s not the sensory overload and 4.5 hour non-stop endurance challenge of the original. With breaks, a meal-length interval (with Adelaide’s amazing Gouger St restaurants minutes away), there’s time to talk and take it all in and see the wonder of this composition through fresh eyes.

The choreography is a visual interpretation of the music with the 1–12 dancers following different parts, rhythms or structures of the score. As much of it wasn’t written as dance music – Glass wrote half of it to accompany Robert Wilson’s design and direction, with the knee plays written just for scene changes, and the rest for Lucinda Childs’s choreography – Warren’s approach allows the audience to see the music come to life through the dance. I know the music very well and heard things I’ve never heard through watching the dance.

At the same time, the dance is all about Einstein’s theory. At the most obvious level, the first half is about mass and the second about light. But, just as the dancers depict the music, they demonstrate the movement of mass and light through space far better than any physics lesson – and show it with a sense of fun and emotion that lets us feel the passion behind the equation.

The choreography starts with or re-visits classical arm or leg positions. Like Einsten’s physics and Glass’s music, the first-learnt classical rules are always there but are questioned and re-constructed to create something that feels so right and balanced and still completely new.

And it all melds with the sound created by Timothy Sexton, the small on-stage Adelaide Art Orchestra and the 16-person State Opera Chorus, who were at times brought into the dance space to become more than sound.

From sounding like one voice to times when all four parts could be heard or a spoken voice was combined with singing voices, the chorus sound exquisite. Working with the dance, Sexton ensures that Glass’s music is heard in new ways.

While there’s spoken poetry in the text (given to the dancers and allowed to be delightfully funny), the music’s lyrics are numbers and solfège. Like classic positions are the beginning of dance, counting and do-re-mi are the first things we learn in music. Everything on the stage begins with first steps and expands to something complex that’s unimaginable at the beginning: just like how Einstein’s theory changed physics.

Musically, Glass treats voices like instruments; they are sound without personality. But by seeing the singers and having them on the stage with the dancers, there was personality. I can’t decide if I loved this or would have preferred the unexpected power of the Wilson emotionless/neutral face that dominates that original production. Seeing the personalities of the individual singers and dancers brings a warmth to the stage, but at the same time something like a singer watching a dancer or counting on their fingers distracts so much more than it should.

There were some initial problems with the amplified sound feeling stuck at the back of the stage and getting lost behind the dancers. This improved throughout the night, but still left it feeling like we were seeing the music through a wall of dance rather than the dance through a wall of music – which might have been the point.

The stage and lighting design were relatively simple and, while supporting everything on the stage with triangles, balance and light, didn’t feel like an equal element of the production. I was in the front, so it may be more impressive from further back or in the circle.

Still the biggest disappointment was the number of empty seats and general lack of sense of occassion. Come on Adelaide, you do festivals brilliantly and here’s your state opera company being trusted with a masterpiece of 20th century modenist composition. This is something to celebrate and support.

It’s nothing like the original Einstein on the beach, but it’s nothing less than it. It’s a remarkable production that starts with Glass’s music to create a work that feels like he wrote it for them, and reminds us to never be scared of seeing any work through new eyes.

There’s still a full cycle left of all three operas (if I’d had time, I would have loved to see the others) and I suspect that the third cycle will be the one to see as they as word gets around that it’s unmissable.

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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