|"I don't know. What do you think it means?"|
1976. Troy Glaus, Reese Witherspoon, Audrey Tautou, Matthew Shepard, Elīna Garanča and Apple Computer are born. Chairman Mao, Agatha Christie, Martin Heidegger, Howard Hughes, Lotte Lehmann, Bob Marley and Benjamin Britten die. The first albums by The Ramones, The Runaways and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are released. "Dancing Queen" and "Bohemian Rhapsody" are the year's biggest hits. "Anarchy in the U.K." is released as a single, as is "Beth." Jimmy Carter is elected president. My friend Mike and I spend our lunch period walking around the campus of our junior high school bumming change with the goal of buying tickets to see Blue Oyster Cult. When we've collected the needed $7.50 apiece, we head out to the school playground and get stoned on Colombian. An "opera" called Einstein on the Beach is performed twice to sold-out audiences at the rented-out Metropolitan Opera House in New York after debuting in various European cities. I am fourteen years old and have never traveled further east than Phoenix, Arizona. I remember the opera was a big deal, because I read about it in the paper.
1984. Troy Glaus' father and I are housemates, living in the San Fernando Valley. I purchase his 1981 Honda 900 Custom from him. Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Prince Harry, Katy Perry and Scarlett Johansson are born. Ethel Merman, Tito Gobbi, Marvin Gaye, Andy Kaufman, Meredith Wilson, Michel Foucault, Truman Capote, Francois Truffaut and Indira Ghandi die. British radio refuses to play "Relax" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. "Purple Rain" is released. Michael Jackson's hair catches on fire during the shooting of a Pepsi commercial. Reagan is re-elected in a landslide. Desmond Tutu wins the Nobel Peace Prize. Ricky Martin joins Menudo. Elton John marries a woman. My friend Mike marries a woman, too (both marriages will end in divorce). Run-DMC release their first album and I become huge fan of rap music. Einstein on the Beach is performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I am twenty-two years old. Salt Lake City, Utah is now the furthest distance from my home to which I have traveled. Most of my weekends are spent at Venice Beach. I have no idea about what is happening in Brooklyn unless it involves graffiti art or hip-hop music.
1992. Troy Glaus is old enough to drive. His father is now married to another woman and lives with her and their daughter. Boxxy, Miley Cyrus, and Frances Bean Cobain are born. Francis Bacon, Willie Dixon, Albert King, Eddie Hazel, Benny Hill, Marlene Dietrich, Robert Reed, Cleavon Little, Lawrence Welk, John Cage, Eddie Kendricks and Shirley Booth die. My friend Mike, now divorced, moves to Birmingham, Alabama. Charles and Diana separate. Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown get married. Bill Wyman quits the Rolling Stones. I quit Los Angeles and move to the Bay Area, taking my 1983 Moto Guzzi V65 C with me. The cops who beat Rodney King are acquitted and L.A. erupts in riots. George H.W. Bush barfs in the lap of the Japanese Prime Minister. Bill Clinton is elected President. The Euopean Union is founded. Yugoslavia falls apart, then into war. The AIDS Memorial Quilt is unveiled. Pope John Paull II apologizes for the inquisition against Galileo. Both Jeffrey Dahmer and Mike Tyson are sent to prison. Nirvana top the charts with "Nevermind." Dr. Dre releases "The Chronic." Einstein on the Beach opens with previews in Princeton before performances in Brooklyn, Melbourne, and four European cities. I visit New York City for the first time, at the age of thirty. It is the furthest point east I have been, and a chance encounter on the Staten Island Ferry will prove to have great ramifications in my future. I take in a Knicks game and see Miss Saigon. I don't make it out to Brooklyn, but do I see Sean Lennon and Yoko Ono get into a limo at the Dakota.
2012. Troy Glaus is a retired Major League Baseball player, after a career which included being named MVP of the World Series in 2002. He was an All-Star four times and hit 320 career home runs. Last I heard, his father still lives in Southern California. We haven't spoken in many years, but his second ex-wife resides in Atlanta. We keep in touch via Facebook. They are grandparents. Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Johnny Otis, Etta James, Duck Dunn, Adam Yauch, Gore Vidal, Helen Gurley Brown, Adrienne Rich, Dick Clark, Davy Jones, Jacques Barzun, Ray Bradbury, Gore Vidal, Earl Scruggs, Maurice Sendak and Whitney Houston die. Elton John is now married to a man. Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain just led their team to the World Series Championship. My friend Mike and his second wife have three children and the eldest recently celebrated her Bat Mitzvah. Now at age fifty, I have traveled as far east as Rize, a small Turkish town on the Black Sea coast, but that feels like a long time ago. It was just one ramification of that ride on the Staten Island Ferry back in 1992. I have been to Brooklyn. I have a 1992 Yamaha Seca II which once belonged to an ex-girlfriend, which I rode over the Bay Bridge to see Einstein on the Beach in Berkeley. This time I was well aware of its recent return to Brooklyn, for I had read all about it online. I am attending the performance with a woman named Sheila, whom I know as a result of writing this blog. Two things haven't changed since 1976: Mike and I are still friends, and Einstein on the Beach is still a big deal.
There are also two widely held beliefs regarding Einstein on the Beach with which I disagree: that it's an opera, and that it's not really about "anything." Its composer Phillip Glass has said before that he and co-creator Robert Wilson decided to call it an opera because what else do you call something that has singing, theater and music and is performed in an opera house? Well, that does make a certain sense, but it doesn't necessarily make it so. Opera does indeed have all of those things, but so does Disney On Ice, and even if the stage of the Met was covered with ice... well, I don't even have to say it, do I? However, I don't mind that it's considered an opera. I'm just pointing out that it's not. It's greater than that, and yet smaller at the same time.
And it most is certainly about something, though not in the ways we commonly define what a thing is "about." The narrative is the experience of the performance itself, and how individual moments, or chunks of time, and what occurs within them, become something greater when their relationship with each other is considered from a distance, or more precisely in this case, the cumulative effect of those events, and how what may seem random and unrelated becomes part of greater whole and begins to make sense, even if it's intuitive rather than direct, over the course of time. And on that score, Einstein is brilliant.
The singing of Lisa Bielawa, the tenor sax solo of Andrew Sterman, and Jennifer Koh's insanely focused solo violin performance are individual elements which linger in the mind with the most presence long afterward. As for the rest of it- the music, dancing and theatrical elements, some felt familiar through recent Bay Area performances of Glass' Music in Twelve Parts (its immediate musical predecessor) and Lucinda Childs' Dance (created shortly afterward), and much of it felt new. Some things (the lyrics to Carol King's I Feel the Earth Move and the references to Patty Hearst, brought on unexpected feelings of nostalgia for the past. As I said to someone only yesterday who asked me what Einstein was like, I clutched at adjectives to describe it, to try to give a sense of its enormity, to try to explain what it was like to experience it- to immerse one's self into a performance for four and a half hours, in which any single component of it may have its own distinct pleasures, but only becomes significant, understandable, and satisfying when considered as part of the greater whole.