Responsibility of Interpretation in Einstein on the Beach



Philip Glass’s, Einstein on the Beach, strays far from the traditional operas that came previously in multiple ways. Everything that this opera encompasses, changes perspectives on what opera “is” and “should be.” In particular, before the 20th century, many operas had a certain plot, most dealing with love, or similar life drama. This made the communication from the artists to the audience somewhat constrained, leaving little room, if any, for interpretations. The complete opposite is the case for Einstein on the Beach, which contains no plot and therefore leaves the audience members to interpret the opera almost entirely all on their own. There is no concrete meaning in the opera and I believe that is what makes it so different and interesting. The point is, there is no point. The point is up to you to decide. There are simply ideas such as: Albert Einstein, space, liberation, and more, that is put together with sound and movement that conveys almost literally whatever the listener wants or thinks. I believe the artists involved wanted the audience to participate with an active imagination with the opera to draw their own meaning and interpretations. 

Albert Einstein is one theme of the opera, according to Philip Glass, and allows the audience to make a quick connection simply because everyone knows this huge influential figure of the time. As the opera plays out, it is up to the audience to react to what they are hearing and seeing to decide on the meaning. For example the opening scenes made me think: “Why is the chorus counting to 4, to 6 then to 8? Why is the progression the same? What is the little boy depicting? What is the train for? Who is the man that looks like he is writing on a chalkboard? Are those solfege syllables they are singing? Is he writing on a chalkboard? Oh maybe it’s Albert Einstein!”  These were all questions running through my mind while watching, and led me to believe the opera was about transformation through time and being in the mind of Eisntien. If you read Susan Flake’s review Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach, her interpretation is dramatically different. For example, she heard the chorus singing “Eeenah, meenah”, not solfege, and the idea of the opera is built on universally understood things. To  Craig Owens in Einstein on the Beach: The Primacy of Metaphor, the images in the opera “are not open to interpretation”, he believes there is an analytical approach and that the opera is a metaphor. Already, there are three different interpretations from three different people, which lead back to the artists wanting the audience to have their own interpretation instead of one being concretely set.

20th century is about change and breaking away from what we deem as “traditional.” The production of Einstein on the Beach breaks rules of traditional opera and sets new boundaries. The importance is “the consciousness of the individual spectator” creating a story out of what is being presented. The artist “don’t give you a plot; [they] give you a theme. And the audience completes the story.” 

Caitlyn Collette


Flakes, Susan. “Robert Wilson’s “Einstein on the Beach”.” The Drama Review: TDR 20, no. 4 (1976): 69-82. doi:10.2307/1145076.

Owens, Craig. “”Einstein on the Beach”: The Primacy of Metaphor.” October 4 (1977): 21-32. doi:10.2307/778477.

Rath, Arun. “The Minds Behind Einstein On The Beach Talk Shop.” NPR. October 12, 2013. Accessed March 06, 2018.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. jacquelinerhale says:

    I like how you laid out your argument, having the differing perspectives from viewers, the artists, and yourself. What I thought was particularly interesting was just how many questions were running through your head as you watched it. I had a very different experience and just found myself confused, or even upset at times with what I was seeing. My perspective has changed and I like that you said “the whole point is there is no point,” and I find that with this sort of thought in mind, it makes the performance much easier to watch; though I still find myself either completely entranced or totally irritated depending on the scene. With works like these, though I think it’s a way for people to really think about why they don’t like something, or DO like something, or maybe they just won’t think about it at all because there’s no point to it in the first place.


  2. susiesmith1991 says:

    I am happy to see a rebuttal to Owens’s claim that this work isn’t open to interpretation. If anything, minimalist operas like Einstein on the Beach are much more open to different analyses than their traditional, pre-20th century predecessors. I couldn’t tell if Owens meant “interpretation” in some other sense, since some of his explanations were overly wordy while some weren’t descriptive enough.

    I think it’s also worth pointing out that a lot of us in this seminar are coming to similar conclusions about the work — Einstein is intentionally vague (just like certain parts of Billy Budd), and the audience is presumably meant to fill in the blanks for themselves.


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