Amiel on avant-garde opera: 'I thought I would croak before that damn thing finished'

As a drug trip, Einstein on the Beach would stun. As far as opera goes, our reviewer says, it's a hoax

Honestly I thought I would croak

Lucie Jansch/Luminato

Basically it started when I accepted an invitation to a dinner in honour of the creators of the 1976 avant-garde opera Einstein on the Beach, put on last weekend at Toronto’s Luminato festival: music by Philip Glass, direction by Robert Wilson, choreography by Lucinda Childs. Wilson explained the libretto was a communal effort; fairly strange since there is no libretto to speak of—but then one of the persons creating the “spoken text” is autistic, which might explain the word deficit and repetition of symbols. Normally I would not mention a neurological condition but it was emphasized in the pre-opera talk by the director.

I should mention that Toronto was awash in High Culture last week and I dodged from the Griffin Poetry Prize events to Luminato’s Einstein. The Griffin Poetry Prize is a universally Good Thing. It would be a good thing even if a Black Mountain poem won it, an avant-garde form of poetry that came to mind during the many and lengthy libretto lacunas of Einstein. True, the American school of Black Mountain poetry only had a lifespan of 23 years (1933-56 officially) although it seemed more like an eternity if you had to listen to it as I did at Canadian poetry festivals in the ’70s. Various critical descriptions explain that Black Mountain poetry was “progressive” with an open-form approach “driven by the natural patterns of breath and utterance.” God, it was vile.

Toronto aviator and businessman Scott Griffin and his wife, Krystyne, endowed the Griffin prize with dollops of loot, making it the richest poetry prize in the world ($65,000 for the best Canadian and the same again for the international winner). Its independent jury could theoretically give all the prize money to some current equivalent of Black Mountain poetry if the moment embraced that fashion but tant pis. A bespectacled 17-year- old, who appeared not to be spotty though you’d think what with his thick glasses and poetry keenness he would be, won Griffin’s high school competition for poetry reading. Scott Griffin claims his love of poetry sprung from memorizing a poem whenever he was bad as a child. I’m not sure a parent today could demand such compliance, but thank you, parents Anthony and Kitty Griffin.

Avant-gardism is a staple of the arts festival. It’s a handy term, avant-garde, because it puts audiences and critics on the defensive, fearing that they may not recognize the Next Big Thing. In a pre-emptive strike, Einstein’s director and composer suggested that audiences might want to leave during the “long bits.” Thus the production was rather like takeout, choose the toppings and stroll after a few bites. I noticed a lot of going out at Einstein, including the exit of some of the festival’s high profile patrons and rather less coming back, although a friend swears she only went for quick vodka. That strikes me as plausible: when Einstein was put on at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House in 1976, audience members were, the program notes by Jorn Weisbrodt tell us, smoking “illegal substances . . . lying in the aisles.”

As a drug trip, Einstein would stun because the visual production values by Wilson are brilliant. They may not mean much but then they aren’t supposed to. “Don’t look for meaning,” Glass and Wilson kept saying. One rather taxing segment for the non-smoking drinking audience involved a beam of light that went horizontal to vertical over a period of 12 minutes without the accompanying emotional sustenance, say, of Wagner’s Liebestrod. It was rather like being put on hold by Air Canada and just when you thought a real person was on the line, the bloody beam of light decided to ascend taking another six minutes. Honestly I thought I would croak before that damn thing finished.

At various times the stage had more than 22 different actors dressed identically in the Einstein look—short-sleeved white shirt, grey trousers and braces. There was no plot, some metaphorical references to Einstein’s work, at least they may be to Einstein’s work but that’s the cool thing about avant-gardism: with fabulous stagecraft and sets you can leave the over-awed audience to be co-author filling in blanks with their own imagination. I saw the synapses of Einstein’s mind with its neurons hurling about.

Wilson had a serious speech impediment as a child and after overcoming it worked on theatre through visual rather than literary themes. Glass’s score of broken chords—Alberti bass, I think—repeating themselves on the amplified woodwinds, keyboard synthesizers with solo soprano singing solfège (better known as do re mi) is obscure sans accompanying production values. The only words I could make out were, “It could be clean, it could be very fresh,” in exquisite blue velvet tones at the opera’s beginning and end.

Lots of us can’t understand the beauty of mathematics or the lure of astronomy but given society’s values that’s okay. Less okay is to admit you have no ear or eye for literature, music or theatre. That’s how pieces of junk (think Tracey Emin’s My Bed) persuade those who lack confidence in their judgment that they are serious art. Einstein on the Beach is a hoax as far as opera goes: it has maybe 35 minutes of riveting stage visuals and 15 minutes of pleasant music out of four-plus hours. Not a good return on investment but a demonstration that insecure audiences are a sucker for anything they find trying but has the right labels. P.T. Barnum would have loved it.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.