Opera after Drama

Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's most celebrated collaboration, the groundbreaking opera Einstein on the Beach, was premiered at the Avignon Festival in 1976. During its initial European tour, its Metropolitan Opera premiere, and its revivals in 1984 and 1992, Einstein provoked opposed reactions both from the audience and critics. Embedding repetitive structural principles in the spectacle of the late-capitalist media age, the work strongly questions conventional positions in opera, music, theatre, and dance. As one critic wrote recently, “it was a combative declaration from the booming downtown scene directed against the established uptown culture, especially the complex, intellectual styles of contemporary music sanctioned within academia”. Today, despite its aura as a groundbreaking work, Einstein on the Beach is still more known about than known.

Despite its strong impact Einstein thus far has not been subjected to a significant body of critical reflection. As the 2012-2013 series of reperformances re-contextualizes the work in relation to present theoretical, political, and social circumstances, we gratefully take this opportunity to provide theoretical discussions in parallel to the performances of Einstein in Amsterdam. Through a series of panel sessions, the forum will initiate an exchange of views on the politics of reception and the performance strategies of Einstein; the possibility of establishing “opera after drama” in light of its postdramatic features; procedures of repetition and ways of representation that allow Einstein to balance on the edge between modernism and postmodernism; the role of new media, their interaction with bodies and voices on stage, as well as the impact they made on the status and function of the opera.

The politics of reception encourage an examination of how and why Einstein’s status changed over the years. Its resonance with Hans-Thies Lehmann’s concept of postdramatic theatre provokes discussion about the work’s place in music theatre ‘after opera’. After Wagner’s “Opera and Drama” and Kerman’s Opera as Drama, Einstein appears as ‘opera after drama’, postdramatic opera. The shift from the self-reflexive sound structures of Glass’s early minimalist pieces to the representational mechanisms of repetitive music in an opera that makes references to extra-musical phenomena, provokes new questions. The overall aim of the Amsterdam symposium is to promote an interdisciplinary debate on the question if, how and why Einstein on the Beach still problematizes conventions of the art-world, and how the work could be considered as a prism through which current issues of contemporary performance practice and theory might be seen more clearly.