The Method and Madness of ‘Einstein on the Beach’

When “Einstein on the Beach” premiered in 1976, the world of opera was turned on its head. Thirty-six years later, we’re still enjoying the head rush of this rarely seen opus and monumental collaboration between director Robert Wilson, composer Philip Glass and choreographer Lucinda Childs.

Spaceship section of "Einstein on the Beach." Photo by Lucie Jansch.

There is no story, no rhyme or reason in “Einstein.” There’s no beach either. There are, however, enigmatic stanzas that are refreshingly incoherent; cosmic sounds put on by organ, keyboard and flute; lighting that cuts and probes; cryptic images that imprint resolutely in the hippocampus; movement so stylized that the slight tilt of the finger seems brilliantly choreographed; and there’s Einstein, space and time.

The first time the artists had ever performed “Einstein” all the way through was at the premiere. They didn’t know how long it was. The opera runs approximately 4.5 hours.

Here are some odd, but true, things we’ve learned about the making of and remaking of a masterpiece, which is on view now through Sunday at Brooklyn Academy of Music.


Operas are usually created in this order: libretto, music, stage design. “Einstein” went: stage design, music, libretto. While waiting for a libretto during the rehearsal phase, performers sang the numbers 1-8  for rhythmic sections and solfège syllables (do, re, mi..)  for the lyrical ones. This became permanent when Wilson asked if this was the vocal text, and Glass decided on the spot to respond, “yes.”

In 1976 the dancers were also the singers. Glass taught them songs by rote. The entire opera was taught this way, one new measure a day.

The production also includes spoken text, written by Christopher Knowles, who is autistic. An example of a character’s line: “Would. Would it. Would it get. Would it get some. Would it get some wind. Would it get some wind for. Would it get some wind for the. Would it get some wind for the sailboat?”

Wilson and Glass had lunch together every Thursday at a Japanese restaurant where Wilson drew images. Glass later composed music to them.

The premiere cost $750,000 to produce. Wilson charged it on his American Express card. Glass, who was a New York City cab driver at the time,  had to sell the score to offset costs. The new production costs $2.5 million. The set travels in three containers and takes three days to load in. Props include 600 pounds of dry ice and 30 pairs of black Converse high-tops. It costs 3-4 times more to mount “Einstein” in New York City than in Paris.

Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were inspirations for Wilson in creating the characters. The Einstein character is currently played by Korean American violinist Jennifer Koh.

Glass hates the term “minimalism.” He prefers “music with repetitive structures.” As for his compositions, he says, “The music is very simple; the approach is very radical.”

Alice Tully, a supporter of Glass, was at the premiere and couldn’t look him in the eye afterward.

Glass and Wilson’s work was originally titled “Einstein on the Beach on Wall Street.”

"Knee Play" section of "Einstein on the Beach." Photo by Lucie Jansch.

Only two members from the original Philip Glass Ensemble are in the current production.

“Mr. Bojangles” is said 58 times in the text.

The character “Witness” repeats this 43 times:

I was in this prematurely air-conditioned super market

and there were all these aisles

and there were all these bathing caps that you could buy

which had these kind of Fourth of July plumes on them

they were blue and red and yellow

I wasn’t tempted to buy one

but I was reminded of the fact that I had been avoiding the beach.



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