History, Time and Space in Opera
PARIS — There’s a powerful passage in “Einstein on the Beach,” the avant-garde opera directed by Robert Wilson with music by Philip Glass, in which a dancer walks back and forth along a diagonal across the full space of the stage with ever-growing intensity, evoking the arrival of an oncoming train. The movement was created by the choreographer and dancer Lucinda Childs, who performed it in the original 1976 production and did the choreography for a revival that opens at the Théâtre du Châtelet here next week.
In a recent telephone interview, Ms. Childs recalled Mr. Wilson’s original direction. “His instructions were very free. He said, ‘Can you just use those three diagonals?”’ In the opera, all the characters play Einstein. “I was holding a pipe in my left arm. I held it out for the entire dance, which was a little bit of a stress,” Ms. Childs said. “Then there were movements I built into it, which my dancer now does, progressively, so it gets crazier and crazier.”
“Einstein on the Beach” loosely explores Albert Einstein’s life as well as his theories and relationship to history, time and space, particularly his involvement with the atomic bomb. But the work also sought to eliminate conventional narrative. The four acts are framed and interspersed with episodes called “knee plays,” a signature of Mr. Wilson’s, and the libretto features the repetition of numbers and recitation of poetry. The endurance-testing score, Mr. Glass’s longest, spans almost five hours. Audiences are free to come and go throughout. It had its premiere at a particular moment in the Cold War and the New York art scene of the 1970s. But the revival, which also appeared at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2012, has kept it fresh for a new generation.
The music will be performed by the Philip Glass Ensemble and the dancers come from the Lucinda Childs Dance Company. Mr. Wilson has also digitally re-mastered the lighting, always a fundamental element in his work. The production will appear in Berlin in March.
The production is the capstone to a Robert Wilson celebration here. This season, Paris has hosted sold-out performances of “The Old Woman,” a genre-bending, Beckett-inspired tragicomic slapstick starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe; and Mr. Wilson’s dark take on “Peter Pan,” with music by the CocoRosie duo. Starting in February, the Paris Opera will stage his production of “Madame Butterfly.”
Rare for a living artist, Mr. Wilson has also been given his own exhibition at the heart of the Louvre. It is called “Living Rooms” and is on view until Feb. 17. In addition to public lectures and screenings of his films, it includes two video works: one inspired by Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Marat,” hung in the painting galleries, and another in which Lady Gaga brings to life a painting by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.
The centerpiece of the show is a room filled with objects from Mr. Wilson’s personal collection in New York, including African masks, a Shaker chair, ancient Chinese ceramics, shoes worn by Marlene Dietrich and a photo of Mr. Wilson and Mr. Glass taken in the early 1980s by Robert Mapplethorpe — all sources of inspiration. (The room and videos are not easy to find, but en route a viewer might bump into the Venus de Milo.) In a statement, the museum said it invited Mr. Wilson “so that the public could discover the more intimate part of his artistic development.”
It’s hard to imagine another city feting Mr. Wilson the way Paris has. But the experimental American director, artist and all-around avant-garde Renaissance man has a long history with France. “Einstein on the Beach” first appeared at the Avignon Festival in 1976. Since then, most of Mr. Wilson’s major works have appeared in Paris.
In a recent public conversation at the Arts Arena, a cultural association in Paris, Mr. Wilson recalled how easy it was to persuade the French Culture Ministry to finance “Einstein on the Beach.” He said he simply went to the culture minister at the time, Michel Guy, and asked for support. A few minutes later, it was a done deal.
“I think Bob Wilson might not have ever emerged from the New York downtown avant-garde scene of the ‘70s had it not been for French audience support and government support,” said Margery Arent Safir, director of the Arts Arena and the general editor of “Robert Wilson from Within,” a collection of essays on the artist.
In 1972, Mr. Wilson’s “Deafman Glance,” a silent opera, appeared at the Nancy Festival and later opened in Paris, championed by the designer Pierre Cardin. The surrealist poet Louis Aragon loved it and published a letter to the surrealist poet André Breton (who had died in 1966), saying that Mr. Wilson was the true heir to the surrealists. “This totally set Bob up,” Ms. Safir said.
It took the American cultural establishment longer to warm up to Mr. Wilson. For the New York debut of “Einstein,” the Metropolitan Opera allowed Mr. Wilson to rent the theater on a Sunday, but would not produce the work. The theater sold out in two days. (The opera was reviewed by Clive Barnes in The New York Times under the headline, “‘Einstein on the Beach’ Transforms Boredom into Memorable Theater.”)
Asked how a viewer might approach “Einstein on the Beach,” Ms. Childs said, “Just be open. I think that’s what Wilson suggests or encourages. Relax.” She said she was sometimes reluctant going to the theater for each performance, but was always pleasantly surprised.
“I’ve seen it night after night. I go in and I think, ‘Oh, my God.’ But it goes by,” Ms. Childs said. “I find that a lot with Bob’s work. Once you get into it, it takes you with it.”