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The allure of "Einstein on the Beach"

philip_glass_courtesy_of.jpg
Photo courtesy of Philip Glass
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When "Einstein on the Beach" opens in Ann Arbor on Friday, Jan. 20, it’ll be the first time the work has been performed in 20 years. But be warned: this isn’t your typical opera.

Einstein on the Beach 101

It was first produced in France in 1976, and until now has only been performed in Europe and on the east coast.

Robert Wilson directed Einstein on the Beach, with music by Philip Glass. Both men are involved in this revival, and since they’re in their 70s now, this is probably the last tour they’ll do as a team.

It's widely hailed as being "one of the greatest artistic achievements of the 20th century," according to the University Musical Society.

What Einstein on the Beach isn't

A list of things the opera is not, according to Mark Clague, a musicologist at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance:

  • It's not Verdi
  • It's not "Oklahoma!"
  • It doesn't have a narrative or story in the typical sense
  • There's no intermission in the nearly 5-hour long work

 
Clague says, because there's no intermission, audience members can "walk out, get a beer, come back in when you can deal with it."

A train, a bus, and a trial

Clague says the opera has some traditional trappings, too: a set, costumes, an incredibly intricate lighting design by Robert Wilson, whom Clague calls “a painter with light."

Clague describes the music by Philip Glass as "highly repetitious, sort of take on classical music and popular music, and there’s something that’s hypnotic at least for me that disarms my resistance to experiencing it."

There are singers, some people recite poems, and a violinist who plays his instrument dressed as Einstein.

Clague says the opera opens with a train, and ends with a bus. In between there are scenes about train travel, trials, sleeping, brushing your teeth.

As for what it all means - or doesn't mean - that’s up to you.

So what's the big deal about "Einstein on the Beach," what's the allure?

"The allure," says Clague, " is, in part, this legend! It's like this legend has arrived in our backyard, and we suddenly have a chance to be part of this radical historical moment that transformed the way people thought about what was possible in the theatre."

Einstein on the Beach runs Friday, Jan. 20 - Sunday, Jan. 22 at the Power Center in Ann Arbor. The show then goes to France for a world tour.

Jennifer is a reporter for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and was one of the lead reporters on the award-winning education series Rebuilding Detroit Schools. Prior to working at Michigan Radio, Jennifer lived in New York where she was a producer at WFUV, an NPR station in the Bronx.
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