Heralded as one of the 20th century’s greatest examples of artistry, “Einstein on the Beach,” the radical five-hour opera that elevated director Robert Wilson and composer Philip Glass to international prominence, is being revived for an international tour 20 years after its last production. The tour’s first stop, and the opera’s first performance in North America outside of New York City, will take place tonight in Ann Arbor.

Einstein on the Beach

Today and Tomorrow at 7 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.
Power Center
From $22


While the opera involves the titular physicist as a character and incorporates many elements from his life, Glass and Wilson intentionally focused upon Albert Einstein as a historical figure instead of a cultural icon. In place of biography, Glass and Wilson actively embrace a lack of narrative, incorporating symbols such as repeated numbers, syllables of solfège and abstract dance sequences. They, along with the production’s original choreographer, Lucinda Childs, are involved with the opera’s new tour.

“In the (university) remounting, the original creative team … is in residence to pass on their innovative aesthetic and distinctive working methods onto a new generation of performers,” Musicology Prof. Mark Clague and director of research at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, said.

The original team’s nonconventional approach extends beyond the narrative and into the production’s underlying music. Glass’s arrangement forsakes traditional orchestral instrumentation for an eerie combination of synthesizers, woodwinds and voice. In lieu of intermissions, audiences set their own breaks and are free to walk in and out of the theater at leisure.

When “Einstein on the Beach” premiered in 1976, as Clague explains, the opera’s style was misunderstood and over-simplified, described as Minimalist and more than a little off-putting. Musicians struggled to perform the play as much as audiences struggled to witness it due to its lack of a clear narrative structure. However, Clague said he believes that modern musicians and popular taste have since caught up.

“This … is anything but (Minimalist),” Clague said. “The opera was prophetic and today, artists have developed the technical understandings to play it and audiences can embrace the concepts in ways that are freshly intriguing.”

When asked for suggestions on how to comprehend “Einstein,” Clague said the audience shouldn’t concern itself with meaning. Instead, it should try and interact with the opera, because its core theme is derived from a combination of the performance and the person.

“The most important thing to know about ‘Einstein on the Beach’ is that the audience member brings the story to the theater,” Clague said. “Einstein was a cultural icon — a conceptual physicist certainly but also a philosopher, humanitarian and a figure of worldwide notoriety.”

After all, theoretical relativity fundamentally changed the way we understood the universe, shifting from an absolute notion of time to one dependent on perspective, which Clague explained is a central focus of the opera’s visual elements.

“Watch the stage change; experience it as a kind of meditation on symbols and signaling itself,” Clague said. “It’s all fascinating — the light, the slow, detailed movements, the musical environment. It’ll be slightly different for everyone, but an audience member willing to give him or herself to this artwork may well be transformed.”

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