Nearly 35 years after its premiere at the Avignon Festival in France, Philip Glass’s “Einstein on the Beach” will finally be performed in the country to the north when the curtain rises tonight at London’s Barbican Theatre. Though the opera toured extensively in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, the 2012 revival is the first to bring the 20th century masterwork to the U.K.
The current tour premiered in March at the Opera Berlioz Le Corum In Montpelier, France, and will continue on after London to other venues around the world, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York and Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, California. These will be the first performances in two decades.
Glass conceived and developed the opera with director Robert Wilson in 1975. Divided into four interconnected acts, the work breaks from traditional narrative form, employing recurring storyboard images and abstract dance sequences throughout. Glass’s score calls for synthesizers, woodwinds, and voices, rather than a typical house orchestra. The production, which lasts for five hours, does not include an intermission, but audience members are encouraged to exit or enter the theater as they wish.
It was Glass’s first opera, and it premiered at Avignon in July of 1976. The original production featured performances by Sheryl Sutton and Lucinda Childs, who later choreographed the 1984 revival. Childs will return in that capacity for this tour, though these performances will be the first without her dancing on stage.
“I think most of my work should never be revived,” Wilson says. “’Einstein’ is a bit different. These kinds of pieces appeal to a younger audience because the language is fresh.”
“The question is,” Glass says, “why is the language still fresh?”
“I think that people have heard about it.” Childs says. “Certainly the reflection on Einstein is conceivably of interest to almost anyone in this particular day and age.”
In an article published last month in the Guardian, Glass and Wilson go into further details about how the opera was conceived and originally performed. For instance, the premiere in Avignon was the first time they had ever played the thing all the way through. Glass is also featured on the cover of this month’s issue of The Fader, a culture and fashion magazine.
The shows at the Barbican run from tonight through May 13. For the Glass-loving Londoners stuck on Randall’s Island for Frieze New York, try to catch one of the performances next week. Or else you’ll have to visit again in September, when “Einstein” comes to Brooklyn.