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Einstein on the Beach is an opera in four acts (framed and connected by five "knee plays" or intermezzos), composed by Philip Glass and directed by theatrical producer Robert Wilson. The opera eschews traditional narrative in favor of a formalist approach based on structured spaces laid out by Wilson in a series of storyboards. The music was written "in the spring, summer and fall of 1975." Glass recounts the collaborative process: "I put [Wilson’s notebook of sketches] on the piano and composed each section like a portrait of the drawing before me. The score was begun in the spring of 1975 and completed by the following November, and those drawings were before me all the time."  The premiere took place on July 25, 1976, at the Avignon Festival in France. The opera contains writings by Christopher Knowles, Samuel M. Johnson and Lucinda Childs. It is Glass's first and longest opera score, taking approximately five hours in full performance without intermission; given the length, the audience is permitted to enter and leave as desired.
The work became the first in Glass' thematically related Portrait Trilogy, along with Satyagraha (1979), and Akhnaten (1983). These three operas were described by Glass as portraits of people whose personal vision transformed the thinking of their times through the power of ideas rather than by military force.
Glass and Wilson first met to discuss the prospects of a collaborative work, and decided on an opera of between four and five hours in length based around a historical persona. Wilson initially suggested Charlie Chaplin or Adolf Hitler, whom Glass outright rejected, while Glass proposed Mahatma Gandhi (later the central figure of his opera Satyagraha). Albert Einstein was the eventual compromise.
Einstein on the Beach premiered on July 25, 1976, at the Avignon Festival in France, performed by the Philip Glass Ensemble and presented by the Byrd Hoffmann Foundation. The opera was also staged that summer in Hamburg, Paris, Belgrade, Venice, Brussels, Rotterdam. In November 1976, Einstein was performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Lucinda Childs, Robert Wilson pupil Sheryl S. Sutton and Samuel M. Johnson filled the primary characters; all three reappeared in the 1984 BAM revival.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) next mounted the opera in 1984. A one-hour documentary about this production appeared on public television, titled Einstein on the Beach: The Changing Image of Opera.
In 1988, opera director Achim Freyer (who had staged the world premiere of Glass's Akhnaten in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1984) designed and staged a reworked version in a highly abstract style, with new spoken texts from the early 20th century, at the Stuttgart State Opera. As with the premiere, this version was also conducted by Michael Riesman.
In 1992, a revival was mounted by International Production Associates that included the participation of Wilson, Glass and Childs. The production was re-staged at the McCarter theater at Princeton University. It subsequently toured to Frankfurt, Melbourne, Barcelona, Madrid, Tokyo, Brooklyn (BAM) and Paris.
In 2001, the opera was staged as an "opera-installation" at the former headquarters of the State Bank of the GDR in Berlin. It was conducted by Ari Benjamin Myers, directed by Berthold Schneider, with stage design by Veronika Witte. The performance combined the concepts of opera and installation art, created by various artists for the production. The spectators were encouraged to wander through the exhibition, while the actions of the musicians could be followed on video screens. A different production by the same team, following the same principle, was staged on the Einstein anniversary in 2005 at the Berlin Parochialkirche.
In 2007, Carnegie Hall presented a concert version of Einstein in which violinist Tim Fain appeared as soloist. The New York Times wrote about his performance, "And Tim Fain, the violinist, gave the solo passages in the second, fourth and fifth 'Knee Plays' and in the climactic, swirling 'Spaceship Interior' scene an electrifying, virtuosic workout." Fain tours extensively with Phillip Glass in duo recitals and they always include the solo from "Knee Play 2" on their program.
A revival with the participation of all the original collaborators was commissioned by the New York City Opera (NYCO) to open their 2009/2010 season. When General Manager designate Gerard Mortier withdrew from NYCO, the revival, along with the rest of Mortier's programming, was canceled.
The team that had organized the New York City Opera production put together another group to remount Einstein, under the management of Pomegranate Arts. After a month of rehearsals overseen by Glass, Wilson and Childs, the first performance in 20 years took place on January 20, 2012, in the Power Center on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (two additional performances that weekend followed). The performance featured Kate Moran and Helga Davis replacing Childs' and Sutton's roles respectively. Grammy Award-nominated violinist Jennifer Koh played the role of Einstein in the preview and alternated with Antoine Silverman for the subsequent tour. The chorus for this revival was composed of sopranos Michèle Eaton, Melanie Russell, Lindsay Kesselman; altos Hai-Ting Chinn, Solange Merdinian, Kate Maroney; tenors John Kawa, Philip Anderson, Tomas Cruz; and basses Greg Purnhagen, Joe Damon Chappel, and Jason Charles Walker.
The official tour began on March 16, 2012, (after a single preview the previous evening) with the premiere at the Opéra Berlioz in Montpellier, France. This was followed by performances at the Teatro Valli in Reggio Emilia, Italy; the Barbican Centre, London; the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto; the Brooklyn Academy of Music Brooklyn, New York; Zellerbach Hall at the University of California, Berkeley, California; the Teatro del Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City: and, in 2013, at Het Muziektheater/De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam. In February 2014 the tour finished in Berlin.
This touring production of Einstein on the Beach was commissioned by: BAM; the Barbican, London; Cal Performances with the University of California, Berkeley; Luminato – Toronto Festival of Arts and Creativity; De Nederlandse Opera/The Amsterdam Music Theatre; Opéra national de Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon; and the University Musical Society of the University of Michigan.
Selections of the opera were included in Carolina Crown's 2013 Championship production "E=mc^2"
Culturebox, a digital production dedicated to cultural content for French Television, streamed a live performance from Théâtre du Châtelet on January 7, 2014. This was the first time the opera was filmed.
From the beginning of Glass and Wilson's collaboration, they insisted on portraying the icon purely as a historical figure, in the absence of a storyline attached to his image. While they did incorporate symbols from Einstein's life within the opera's scenery, characters, and music, they intentionally chose not to give the opera a specific plot. This is in accord with Wilson's formalist approach, which he asserts creates more truth on stage than naturalist theater. Wilson structured Einstein on the Beach as a repeating sequence of three different kinds of space. Between major acts are shorter entr'actes known as "knee plays," a signature technique that Wilson has applied throughout his oeuvre. Propelling idea of "non-plot" within Einstein on the Beach, its libretto employs solfège syllables, numbers, and short sections of poetry. In an interview, Glass comments that he originally intended for his audience to construct personal connections with Einstein as a character and with the music that he assigns to the icon. For example, the music within the first of the opera's "Knee Plays" features repeated numbers accompanied by an electric organ. Glass states that these numbers and solfège syllables were used as placeholders for texts by the singers to memorize their parts, and were kept instead of replacing them with texts. This numerical repetition, however, offers an interpretation as a reference to the mathematical and scientific breakthroughs made by Einstein himself. Of further reference to the icon's image, everything on the originally staged set of Einstein on the Beach, from costumes to lighting, depicts specific aspects that refer to Einstein's life.
Overall, the music assigned to Einstein demonstrates a circular process, a repeating cycle that constantly delays resolution. This process uses both additive and subtractive formulas. The three main scenes within the opera—"Train", "Trial", and "Field/Spaceship"—allude to Einstein's hypotheses about his theory of relativity and his unified field theory. Specifically, themes within the opera allude to nuclear weapons, science, and AM radio.
The opera consists of nine connected 20-minute scenes separated by "Knee Plays". Five "Knee Plays" frame the opera's structure and appear in between acts, while also functioning as the opening and closing scenes. Glass defines a "Knee Play" as an interlude between acts and as "the 'knee' referring to the joining function that humans' anatomical knees perform". While the "Knee Plays" helped to create the necessary time to change the scenery of Wilson's seven sets, these interludes also served a musical function. David Cunningham, a Glass scholar, writes that the intermittence of Glass's "Knee Plays" amongst the opera's four acts, serves as a "constant motif in the whole work".
The opera requires a cast of two female, one male, and one male child in speaking roles (for the Wilson production); a 16 person SATB chamber chorus with an outstanding soprano soloist and a smaller tenor solo part; three reed players: flute (doubling piccolo and bass clarinet), soprano saxophone (doubling flute), tenor saxophone (doubling alto saxophone); solo violin, and two synthesizers/electronic organs. The orchestration was originally tailored to the five members of the Philip Glass Ensemble, plus the solo violin.
The work is structured as follows:
"I Feel the Earth Move" is the third section in the Trial 2/Prison section of the opera. The section is written in the same style as the rest of the opera, but has an instrumentation of soprano saxophone and bass clarinet, omitting the electronic keyboard used in most of the segments in Einstein on the Beach. A poem by Christopher Knowles is read over the musical soprano saxophone and bass clarinet line and in the poem's meanderings, it mentions such "TV personalities" as David Cassidy. A shortened version of this piece was chosen along with three other selections from Einstein on the Beach to appear on another Philip Glass album Songs from the Trilogy, which also included selections from Glass's operas Satyagraha and Akhnaten. The section's title is a reference to a Carole King song of the same name, from her album Tapestry.
Two "complete" recordings of the opera have been made: the first in 1978, released on the Tomato label (TOM-4-2901) in 1979, and later on CBS Masterworks followed by Sony Classical (both M4K 38875); the second in 1993, released that same year on the Nonesuch label (79323). The 1978 recording was held to 160 minutes in order to fit onto four LP records, i.e., the opening scene's repeats were considerably shortened. The 1993 recording encompassed 190 minutes, freed by the technology of the compact disc, although it was released on three CDs instead of the original's four. It is worth noting that the original instrumentation was revised for the 1993 recording, most notably the replacement of the Farfisa organ.
Michael Riesman conducted both recordings. In 1978, Lucinda Childs, Sheryl Sutton, Paul Mann, and Samuel M. Johnson performed the opera's texts, with Philip Glass Ensemble performer Iris Hiskey taking the soprano solo. In 1993 Childs and Sutton repeated their roles, while Gregory Dolbashian and Jasper McGruder replaced Mann and the late Mr. Johnson's roles respectively, and Jeremy Montemarano voiced the role of "The Boy;" Schuman sang the soprano role. Most of the participants in the Nonesuch recording had performed in Einstein on the Beach during its 1992 world tour. A 77-minute highlights CD from the 1984 Brooklyn Academy of Music performances, accompanied by a DVD documentary, was released by Philip Glass's personal label Orange Mountain Music in early September 2012, and an extended recording, 217 minutes long, was released at the same time but available only by download from the iTunes Store. In October 2013, Pacifica Radio released an two disc set of a 1976 interview with Glass and Wilson conducted at The Kitchen and excerpts from a rehearsal of some excerpts from the opera, also performed at The Kitchen on March 19, 1976.
The violin part for the work has been performed by Robert Brown (in the live 1976 production), Paul Zukofsky (in the 1979 recording), Tison Street (in the live 1984 production), Gregory Fulkerson (in the live 1992 production and 1993 recording) and an interchanging performance of Jennifer Koh and Antoine Silverman during the 2012/13 production.