It’s been a big week for massive sweeping ambitious works of art. I read Cloud Atlas in preparation for the release of the movie (book is great, movie less so), saw Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick at the SF Opera, watched Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and capped the week off with four and a half hours of Einstein on the Beach while the San Francisco Giants were winning the world series (I managed to wait until the opera finished before checking the score. Game delayed on account of Glass).
Moby-Dick was a rather satisfying piece of conventional drama. Heggie’s score is appealing and easy to appreciate on a first listening. The use of computer generated imagery projected on the stage created massive sense of scale, although the combined effect of the tuneful score and projections made the opening sequence feel like the opening credits of a movie more than an opera. At the time it was exhilarating, but upon reflection, there’s something a little unsettling about an opera dressed up like movie. It’s like your mom showing up with her midriff exposed, navel freshly pierced, looking to hang out with your friends. The projections were most effective when they were creating the environment that the performers inhabited, particularly the small whaling dinghies.
The libretto streamlines the novel greatly, and the most effective source of drama is the tension between the obsessive Ahab and the more reasonable Starbuck. The secondary arcs involving Queequeg, Greenhorn, and Pip are much less well defined, holding little moral or emotional weight. At times it’s not even clear exactly what happens with those characters (Queequeq’s speedy recovery from his deathbed is unexplained, as is Pip’s somewhat spontaneous insanity). Reading the synopsis helps a bit, but I prefer a piece that can make itself understood without cliff notes. Still, between the visual spectacle and the scenes between Ahab and Starbuck, it’s a fine night at the opera.
Einstein on the Beach is a four and a half hour mega-opera that is anything but conventional, yet, 40 years later, remains deeply affecting. The libretto consists almost entirely of counting (“one two three four”) or solfege (“la si do si la si do si”) with brief, semi-coherent monologues of spoken word layered over the top. The music is monolithic, literally 20-30 minutes is spent oscillating between two or three harmonies with rhythms and accents constantly shifting beneath. In such a context, the introduction of a new harmony is startling. Much of the stage work is structured and formal, clearly delineated, with patterns and gestures that also recur and repeat over 20 or 30 minute chunks. Then there are the “Fields” the astonishing (and crowd pleasing!) ensemble pieces where dancers pirouette in precise patterns, creating arcs and complex geometries across the stage, yet never touching or directly interacting.
It is not a piece to decode or follow or explain. It is a piece to observe, to allow to seep in. Certainly there are recurrences and connections and things to notice. Being familiar with some of the specifics of Einstein’s work, I recognized the train and the space ship from his thought experiments, as well as the more abstract mathematic and geometric ideas that permeated the sets. Amongst the artifice and formality on stage, there were recurring references to the more banal aspects of human existence: the ensemble brushes their teeth, engages in a collective brown bag lunch break, files their nails. How amazing that a human, who eats bagged lunches, who brushes their teeth, who sticks out their tongue, also has the ability to combine the raw stuffs of mathematics into a model of the physical universe that human inhabits. Perhaps Einstein on the Beach is not so much about Einstein as it is an invitation to inhabit the mind of Einstein, to see the world as he might see it, to come to a unique understanding about the complex world emerging from the interactions of many seemingly simple events, meaningless in isolation, but luminous in concert.