Einstein on the Beach, An Opera in Four Acts by Robert Wilson& Philip Glass Choreography by Lucinda Childs Presented in association with Pomegranate Arts BAM presents The 2012 production of Einstein on the Beach, An Opera in Four Acts at the BAM Opera House on September 13, 2012. Performers: Knee Plays- Character 1_Helga Davis_black woman Character 2_Kate Moran_white Jennifer Koh_Einstein Boy on Tower_Jasper Newell Judge_Charles Weillams Night train_ Man Gregory R. Purnhagen Woman_Helga Davis Woman Reading on bed_Katie Dom Bed: Vocal Soloist_ Hai-Ting Chinn Credit: Stephanie Berger.
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I went into the production of Philip Glass’s “Einstein on the Beach” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Friday, curious to see if this famous 1976 work would tell me anything about science.

In the program, I found no Einstein (although one orchestra member wore a white wig and mustache) and no beach. Also missing: Coherent lyrics. Oh, and a plot.

If Einstein was there at all, it was in the music. Philip Glass’s composition (often described as minimalist) is highly repetitive. It takes a few measures and repeats them dozens of times with little variation. Listen to the example below. It sometimes felt like a mantra, other times like a plodding freight train (a good thing!).

Somewhere between three and four hours in, I reached sensory overload, felt trapped and scared, and started wondering if I was about to go insane.

The feeling was appropriate for an opera named after Einstein. Much about Einstein’s work is difficult to truly comprehend. Our brains evolved in a hunting and gathering environment. Our experience is classically Newtonian. I’ve never traveled close enough to the speed of light that special relativity became noticeable and time appeared to stretch or shrink. Most of us have never seen matter turn into pure energy. Although we have equations and words to describe such phenomena, the ideas are not intuitive. They are overwhelming and beautiful and sometimes frightening. And Glass has captured some approximation of that.

Susannah Locke is an associate editor at Popular Science magazine.

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