Einstein On The Beach Goes West, Pt. 2

On October 23, 2012 by Will Hermes

Einstein On The Beach will be performed on the West Coast for the first time ever this weekend, at UC Berkeley, for three nights, Fri-Sun Oct. 26-28. I wrote about the NY revival in a previous post; Bay Area folks, don’t sleep.

As promised, here’s a couple of excerpts from Love Goes To Buildings On Fire about the European and American premieres of Einstein in 1976.

Philip Glass had been a semi-regular at Max’s Kansas City, even played a gig there with his group once. When Mickey Ruskin sold the place, Glass remained loyal: “I followed him around,” he said. “I didn’t hang out as much as other people did, but I always knew where Mickey’s club was, and my friends always went.”

Glass didn’t make it to Ruskin’s new Ocean Club that week, however. He was in France with Bob Wilson and their “opera” company for the first full-dress performance of Einstein On The Beach at the Avignon Festival.

There were technical issues. Kurt Munkacsi was installing and troubleshooting a sound system with wireless headset mics, cutting-edge technology at the time. And some of the more spectacular scenes were still being worked out—most critically, one in middle of the final act, where a bar of light representing a bed slowly rises one one siside, tipping up from horizontal to vertical, then disappears up into the fly space. The trick was accomplished by two guys slowly turning a hand winch. One unsteady motion and the lightbox, suspended on cables, would begin to swing, and the spell would be broken.

Then there was the score, still evolving just days before the performance. With rehearsals going late into the night, Glass spent the days writing louder intermezzo parts to cover the scene changes. He had miscalculated, by his own admission: the connecting interstitials he had written in New York, dubbed “Knee Plays,” were too quiet to cover up the sound of scenery being dragged (and sometimes dropped) — the main reason for the intermezzo music to be there in the first place.

A bigger last minute addition came when singer Joan LaBarbara had a diva moment. “Look,” she told Glass, disgruntled, “this is an opera, and I’m the soprano lead, and I don’t have an aria. I want an aria!”

With the clock ticking, Glass wrote one for her: a gorgeously billowing piece slotted into the light-bed scene. On record and on stage, it is Einstein’s most moving moment.

The premier eclipsed everything else at the festival, and set up a European tour for the production that attracted followers as pie-eyed in their ardor as Deadheads. The nine performances at Paris’ Opera Comique had ticketless hopefuls clotting the sidewalk. Often they’d sneak in through the backstage area and wind up in the orchestra pit, where ushers would have to shoo them out. At times Ensemble members came close to being ejected mid-performance, defending their ticketless presence in broken French.

The American premiere, slated for November, would present its own problems. But a review of the Avignon performance in the Soho Weekly News was auspicious. “Einstein On The Beach is more than brilliant, more than a masterpiece, more than mere total-theater,” rhapsodized Robb Baker. “It is the first complete art statement (as much as I distrust art statements) of our times, of our schizophrenic split between mind and soul, between science and magic, between material reality and desired transcendence.”

# # #

At about 9AM on Friday, November 19th, two 40-foot trucks carrying ten tons of equipment pulled up to the Metropolitan Opera loading dock on Amsterdam Avenue. The next evening, as the cast of Wagner’s Lohengrin took their curtain call and the crowd walked out humming the wedding march, the Met crew began striking the cathedral set and the swan-drawn boat and prepared to hang Einstein on the Beach. They’d have 18 hours to turn it around for a 6:30 Sunday curtain. In Europe, the same set up had taken three days.

Even after months of performances abroad, it was still hard to believe Einstein was happening here. The original idea had been to stage it over eight nights at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where Glass had seen Wilson’s 12-hour Life and Times of Joseph Stalin in ’73. But the scale was so huge, the production team decided only the Met could accommodate it. Plus, the idea of bringing a three-ring avant-garde spectacle uptown to storm the barricades was kind of thrilling. When the Met agreed, thanks partly to the word-of-mouth buzz from Europe, Wilson’s company rented the Opera House on a Sunday night for $150,000.

By October, Glass and Wilson, performing in Germany, were sweating. There was no way the whole shebang could be set up in 18 hours, they were thinking, and renting the hall for a second day just to do set-up was financially out of the question. The men were thinking of bailing when the Met’s Jane Herman and production manager Gil Helmsley arrived in Hamburg to see Einstein for themselves. They were amazed, and they convinced Glass and Wilson that it was doable. By the time they returned to New York, the November 21st performance was sold out, and a second was scheduled for the following weekend.

At 4AM Sunday, the crew began setting up Kurt Munkasci’s sound system, which accounted for five of production’s 10 tons. The Met had never seen so much sound amplification gear in its history. By the time Glass arrived at 9, haggard in faded jeans and a lumberjack shirt (he’d slept little), the system was up and tested. Around noon, the cast began a five-hour dress rehearsal, with the supremely calm Helmsley, all afro and belly, directing backstage traffic, or working the rotary phone tucked in beside the audio patch panels. The production budget had ballooned to $863,000 by this point, and somehow, Wilson’s production company managed to raise $775,000, ticket sales included. In 1976 dollars, for downtown experimental artists, the $88,000 shortfall was no joke. But they’d worry about it later.

The curtain rose at 6:32 pm Sunday night. Lucinda Childs and Sheryl Sutton sat at small, low desks in front of an illuminated panel. They wore loose, white button-down shirts, pants with suspenders, dark Converse sneakers. A deep blue electric organ chord billowed from the speaker stacks. It was loud, like God snoring; the floor and the seat armrests hummed. The chorus, dressed like the dancers, began incanting: “One two three four, One two three four five six, one two three four five six seven eight…,”looping different parts of the progression, each variant conjuring a subtle emotional shift.

Gradually Childs and Sutton’s voices rose amidst the chorus, and they began repeating phrases that feel randomly plucked from ad copy, pop songs, overheard conversations: “And it could get for it is….It could be very fresh and clean….Oh these are the days my friends, and these are the days my friends…,” phrases overlapping the choral chants and recitations like the simultaneous dialogues in Robert Altman’s Nashville. A massive plywood steam engine moved slowly forward, then backward across the stage. Around 9:30 pm there was a problem with the violin amp, which was quickly fixed. Otherwise, it was flawless.

In the fifth hour (there was no intermission), Joan LaBarbara sang her aria, the light-bed tilted and slowly ascended into the flyspace. And in the final act, from the third tier of the “spaceship”—a giant Hollywood Squares-like set which Glass set himself atop, less out of ego that to assure his musicians that the rickety thing was in fact safe—the composer could see out into the maw of the operahouse. The 3000-seat house was filled, standing room included. David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, and Chris Frantz, who Glass invited when he met them at their Kitchen show earlier in the year, all made the trip up, as had many of their downtown colleagues. The curtain fell at 11:26 pm, and the audience delivered a standing ovation that went on and on.

At the Bottom Line, the Patti Smith and band walked onstage for their 11:30pm show—the last of a seven-night, two-sets-a-night run to mark the release of their second album, Radio Ethiopia. It had been a good run; Bruce Springsteen even joined her a couple of times, pounding piano on the Velvet Underground’s “We’re Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together” and hollering along on the Who’s “My Generation.”

The following Sunday, during the second performance of Einstein on the Beach, Glass stood backstage with one of the Met’s big machers, looking out at the audience. “Who are these people?” he asked the composer. “I’ve never seen them here before.” Glass replied “Well, you better find out who they are, because if this place expects to be running in twenty-five years, that’s your audience out there.”

Glass was understandably cocky. He was a little less so after the final performance. To help recoup the production debt, Glass arranged to sell the original Einstein score to a collector, and for quite some time, he funneled any extra money he made from commissions and performances towards paying it off. And he went back to driving a hack. As the story goes, a well-dressed older woman got into his cab shortly after the Met performances and commented: “Young man, do you realize you have the same name as a very famous composer?”

Before long, people spoke and wrote about Einstein at the Met as if it were a mystical, religious experience. David Byrne talked about it for weeks. After taking some time off, production coordinator Gil Helmsley began working on his next big project: the inauguration of President-elect Jimmy Carter.

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