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If you're just joining us, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.


RATH: Philip Glass has achieved a rare feat for an American composer. He's embraced by the musical establishment, and his music is heard far outside classical circles. Beck recently helped him produce a tribute album. But as Glass' most famous opera, "Einstein on the Beach," hits the L.A. Opera this weekend - attended by the likes of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West - it's easy to forget just how far this music was from the mainstream when it premiered.


RATH: After its Met debut in 1976, New York Times critic Clive Barnes wrote: I have rarely heard a first night audience respond so vociferously at the Metropolitan Opera House as for this bizarre, occasionally boring, yet always intermittingly beautiful theater piece.


PHILIP GLASS: It's a story that you have to create for yourself. We don't give you a plot. We give you a theme. And the audience completes the story.

RATH: That's Philip Glass. The opera actually makes intense demands of its audience: four and a half unbroken hours of music. The audience is invited to get up and take breaks as they need them. There's no plot, but the opera is about Einstein, kind of. It's also about the existential uncertainties of a nuclear age and about women's liberation and space exploration and a lot of other stuff. There are texts of nonsense syllables, solfege notes and strings of numbers, spoken and sung.


RATH: When you talk with Philip Glass about the opera's popularity, he's quick to point out that this current run is actually the first full production of the work since the 1990s.

GLASS: Well, there hasn't been one in 20 years. You couldn't even see an imitation of "Einstein." No one did it, so that when we do it now, people are seeing it, really, as if it's for the first time because, in fact, for them, it is the first time.

RATH: The tragedy of that, Glass says, is that listening to the opera on record only gives you maybe half of the experience.

GLASS: (Unintelligible) the opera, actually.


GLASS: I mean, the only way you really get to know opera is you have to see the dances. You have to hear the speeches. You have to see the movement. You have to see the designs. Movement, text, image and music: These are the four elements of theater, of opera. It's the earth, air, fire and water, that's what it is.


RATH: From the start, "Einstein on the Beach" was a collaboration between Glass and the visionary director and playwright Robert Wilson. I spoke with Wilson at the LA Opera this week.

ROBERT WILSON: First meeting, I ask him how he wrote music. And then he showed me in terms of math and numbers. And I said, oh, that's very similar to the way I construct a play. And we soon realized that we thought alike, and we decided from the very beginning that we would make a work together.

RATH: They agreed to work on a long- very long - form piece, based on a historical character. Again, Philip Glass.

GLASS: At one point, we had to find a name for the piece and what the piece would be about. We ended up with "Einstein." That was the third idea.

RATH: What were the first two ideas?

GLASS: I think he suggested Hitler. And I didn't like that so much. So I said what about Gandhi? That was kind of the opposite. I think he didn't respond to what a theatrical idea about Gandhi would be. And then he said: What about Einstein? Well, I had - Einstein had been a great hero of mine since I had been a child, so I immediately said, that's great. That's the idea.

RATH: Wilson began drawing, and Glass composed to the drawings, setting them out on his piano when he wrote his score. Wilson's vision was as far as you could get from the mainstream. He explained that when he first arrived in New York from Texas, he was actually repulsed by Broadway musicals.

WILSON: Well, first of all, they were quite grotesque visually. And I was much more interested in going to a museum and looking at paintings than to see this trash on Broadway. And the same with the Metropolitan Opera. It was, you know, the make-up, the costumes, the gestures, the way they behaved on stage, the scenery. It was grotesque.

RATH: But seeing the work of George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet triggered the opposite reaction in Wilson. Finally, someone was speaking his language.

WILSON: What interested me was dance and the way that it was constructed with time-space constructions, and that it was abstract. And so I always thought: Why couldn't theater be that way? Or an opera? So, that's what we did.

RATH: For that essential dance element, Glass and Wilson turned to avant-garde dancer and choreographer Lucinda Childs. Like Glass and Wilson, she had a mathematical sensibility in her approach.

LUCINDA CHILDS: I had never worked with a composer before in this kind of traditional way. However, I felt that there was so much freedom in terms of thinking about the structure of the music that I didn't necessarily have to illustrate it, and I didn't have to ignore it. But I could find a dialogue in working with music because of the mathematical structure, something that I can respond to. And it was similar to the way I work with my choreography.


RATH: Just as "Einstein on the Beach" challenges audiences, the performers do not have an easy ride. Musicians are required to act. The violinist Jennifer Koh is playing Einstein in this production. Some of the performers fly. During the dress rehearsal, the staging looked as complicated as a Cirque du Soleil show. Those challenges could explain in part why the influence of "Einstein on the Beach" on modern opera has been limited.

GLASS: At the time, people said, oh, it's changed the world of opera. Actually, it never did. No one did The Son of Einstein or Waiting for Einstein. No one - it never was imitated. One of the reasons that people like it so much today is that they haven't seen it.

RATH: And if the scene at the L.A. Opera last night was any indication, that may be about to change.


RATH: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Tune in tomorrow for an in-depth look at how the tobacco settlement money is being spent.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: There was the feeling that there was definitely a moral obligation to spend at least a sizeable chunk of money on programs to help people quit smoking and to prevent kids from starting. And so it was understood without being codified into the agreement that states would make a big investment in this. And in fact, they haven't.

RATH: That story tomorrow. And check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. You can follow us on Twitter @nprwatc. Thanks for listening and have a great night.

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