High atop a scaffold, a small boy floats out a paper plane. Below a woman in a man's white shirt, braces and pearl gray trousers walks up and down rapidly in a diagonal course. Her head and hands twitch programmatically. Another figure, bent like a discus thrower, balances on one foot and listens raptly to a conch shell. A man dressed like a mechanic, a red wrench protruding from his hip pocket, obsessively chalks mathematical equations in the air. A handsome gray steam engine chugs into view. From the pit a chorus raises a wordless three-note chant.
Robert Wilson's Einstein on the Beach arrived for two performances at the Metropolitan Opera last week after causing excitement in Avignon, Venice and Belgrade. It is hardly an opera that sends audiences home humming and whistling. Wilson, 32, is a theatrical anarchist, a direct descendant of Dada. He believes in epic projections. One of his earlier plays, The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, clocked in at twelve hours. Einstein on the Beach runs just over 4½ hours, unfolding through four acts, nine scenes and five "knee plays"short connecting vignettes. Performed without intermission, it requires a Heldenaudience.
There are no arias and no story. Instead a cast of 27 moves through a series of pictorial events set to the instrumental and vocal music of Philip Glass. A leading composer of the trance school of American music, Glass, 38, suggests in his work both Indian ragas and Bach preludes. Brief modular melodies expand and contract with soothing tidal regularity.
Three visual themes recur: a train, a trial, a field with a spaceship. The train, which first appears as a steam locomotive, returns as an observation car and finally as a university building. In the two courtroom scenes, it is never clear who is on trial. The illuminated cubicles of the spaceship's interior, with flashing lights and moving silhouettes, resemble a grownup's busy box. Einstein has very little to do with the proceedings, although sometimes he fiddles furiously from a raised platform in the pit. Wilson's art reflects the work he has done as a behavioral therapist with autistic children. His personal view of man as a daydreamer watching his own interior screen fuels an obsessive curiosity about human communication without words. When words do occur in Einstein, they are likely to be numbers or solfege syllables like do, re, mi that are bleached of definition. Feeling but not meaning is conveyed by Gertrude Steinian repetition. So mesmeric are the proceedings that it is startling when the curtain finally drops. In Einstein on the Beach, Wilson has created more of a dream than an opera. Joan Downs