NEW YORK — What opera launched a legendarily prolific opera career, influenced a generation of opera composers and is an American opera classic, yet is not an opera and has only been mounted a handful of times in the 37 years since its premiere? That's an easy riddle. It's "Einstein on the Beach," which Los Angeles Opera will present next weekend at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
"No, of course not," Philip Glass answers when I asked whether he and director and visual artist Robert Wilson set out to write an opera nearly 40 years ago, both then part of a small community of SoHo avant-garde artists scraping by. Glass himself is now the world's best-known classical composer, but he has remained true to those New York downtown artistic roots.
We're talking in the now arty East Village, where the energetic 76-year-old composer lives and works in a brownstone he bought years ago when the neighborhood was still fairly iffy and which has much evidence of his two young sons.
"Bob called 'Einstein' an opera," Glass explains. "He liked stirring up people. But we wanted to do a proscenium piece, and we needed an orchestra pit. We needed fly space. We needed people who could sing. We needed people who could dance. You could call it anything you want to, but the only place we could do it was in an opera house. That's where the stuff was."
Plus at the time, Local 802, the New York musicians union, operated on the dictum that operas play in opera houses. Call it something different and the union could shut down the show.
"Stuff," in the sense of the relativistic weirdness of matter, is also what "Einstein" essentially is about. Just as Albert Einstein helped illuminate the nature of light, which is simultaneously particle and wave, "Einstein on the Beach" manages something analogous by causing music and imagery (wave and particle, if you like), to appear as different properties of the same miraculous phenomenon.
What is also fascinating about "Einstein" is that — while certainly radical in comparison to Glass' more conventional operas in which there are narrative libretti, sung roles and a standard orchestra — it presages many of the themes that run through his later work.
In 1976, Glass had, through works for his ensemble of winds, voice and electric keyboards, reached his high Minimalist period, producing repetitive binary musical structures that could drive some listeners mad but convince a willing audience that ecstasy was just around the corner. Wilson created and designed visually alluring alternate-universe theatrical spectacles that he called operas, even when there was no music at all, that revolved around images and loose dramatic themes.
In "Einstein," everyone dresses like the scientist. There is a solo violinist, who is more Einstein than anyone else, along with a chorus and dancers and reciters. The chorus sings numbers and solfeggio syllables to help the singers keep their place through byzantine musical patterns. "Einstein" relies on Glass' own seven-member ensemble. Otherwise, the text is spoken stream-of-consciousness.
There are scenes of a train, a trial, a field, a building, a bed (an incredible rising rim of light) and a space machine (more breathtaking than anything in "Star Wars," which opened the following year). Although broken up into four acts and five entr'actes called Knee Plays and lasting 270 unbroken minutes, audiences are free to come and go.
"Einstein" was recognized from the start — the premiere was in Avignon, France, and after a short European tour, it was presented by the Metropolitan Opera in New York — as a piece of exceptional experimental music theater. Remounted by Glass and Wilson in 1984 (with new choreography by Lucinda Childs) and 1992 but not again until the current 2012 touring production, "Einstein" has remained rare enough to seem ever fresh.
"It is like a 16-year-old dancer who never ages," the composer jokes.
"But why is that?" he continues. "I thought about that, and here's why. When Bob and I did 'Einstein,' we thought, in a very naive way, that we would have a big impact on the world of opera, and we had none. Zero. 'Einstein' was considered so different from anything else around it, no one bothered to imitate it. It became sui generis."
Glass notes that he had a harder time with early audiences for his second and somewhat more traditional (though still Minimalist) opera, "Satyagraha," based on Gandhi's early years in South Africa. "Many of the people who had seen 'Einstein' were bitterly angry with me," he recounts, "because 'Satyagraha' was not 'The Son of Einstein.'
"But when you saw 'Einstein' 35 years later, it was completely new. Nothing had been disturbed. It never had gotten dumbed down into something else. I think that was an accident, but in a way it saved the piece."
Even so, "Einstein" did ignite Glass' extraordinary and ultimately hugely influential operatic career. That began when "Einstein" was done in Amsterdam in 1976, and Hans de Roo, the head of Netherlands Opera, called up the composer the next day.
"He said, 'Well, Philip that was a very interesting piece, how would you like to write a real opera?'