Einstein on the Beach is a different style of opera that sets out to capture the ideas, rather than images, of mathematician and scientist Albert Einstein, a man who changed the world. This new generation production of this classic Glass opera has taken the radical decision to present it as a four act opera with intervals dividing each act, and a long dinner break between acts two and three. It has the blessing of the composer, and it works a treat.

<i>Einstein on the Beach</i> © Darren Williams Photography
Einstein on the Beach
© Darren Williams Photography

I wasn’t sure that it would. There are always swings and roundabouts. Here, each act has become a package, still linking to the others, yet now with its own stronger emphasis. This is a minimalist version of what was already described as a minimalist opera. Gone are visual images of train or court room, mattresses or bus. Highlighted are the creativity of the music and the involvement of the dancers and that, it transpires, is more than enough to capture an audience and distil the essence of Einstein, maybe to do it even more successfully.

Mary Moore has designed a stark set, consisting of large triangular shapes, emphasised by the lighting patterns of Geoff Cobham, creating small revolving triangles of black and white onto the stage. With the start of Act II, colours start to be introduced. Some of the dancers are no longer in black; bright yellow and mauve lighting appears. The excitement level notches up, and is expressed in the flavour of both the singing and the dancing.

There is a lot to like about this opera. It is a very clever production, a rich integration of light and shadows, dance and gesture, singing and sound that contribute like daubs of paint on a canvas to create an impressionist portrait of many of the things that made Einstein tick. It gives the audience a chance to let their imaginations switch on and engage in discovering new interpretations of their own.

<i>Einstein on the Beach</i> © Darren Williams Photography
Einstein on the Beach
© Darren Williams Photography

Conductor Timothy Sexton shows brilliance in the way he leads both the quintet of musicians from the Adelaide Art Orchestra and the sixteen singers from the State Opera Chorus. Einstein on the Beach must be one of the most difficult operas for musicians to play or chorus to sing as they shift through so many micro-changes in rhythm. They never missed a beat of this mesmerising musical chant. The singers blended so well with the quintet that, with their repetitive sounds, they could easily have passed as an extension of the music. They were mathematically precise, their diction crisp and clear.

Accompanying them throughout all four acts were the Leigh Warren Dancers, who began with slow rigid movements, expressing the yet unrevealed potential of all that Einstein would discover. Gradually they loosened up, becoming more fluid, maybe depicting atoms that unite and divide, rotate and cluster, support and separate. As things became richer, lighting caught the dancers, projecting their shadows on white walls to give further depth to their movement, sometimes adding distortions, at other times glimpses of hieroglyphic style images.

For most of the opera, the chorus stood behind the hypotenuse of a triangular wall, only head and shoulders showing, visually linked to the musicians below. At times, when in black, the lighting cleverly captured just their necks and heads. For ‘Train’ the men of the chorus linked hand to elbow, to create the arms on the wheels of a steam engine as they 'choof' in time across the stage. Sometimes a voice from the chorus, at other times a voice from the dancers, led the recitation texts. Dancer Gala Moody’s expressive recital of “These are the days” as she moved gracefully across the stage to the accompaniment of yellow and mauve lighting, led to the only outburst of spontaneous applause. It was well deserved, but it was as if the audience had broken ranks, risking the absorption in which they had become so engrossed.

This is a production that has been created by thinking outside the square. It is very much an opera of ideas expressed in voice, sound, movement and light. It is totally absorbing, demanding attention, letting it wash over and carry one along. Leigh Warren compared it to a paper boat being carried along in a stream. At the start you could never be sure where it would take you, but you can be sure that if you let it, it would carry you along on an exciting journey. And where you end up will depend on the amount of trust you can put in the experience. To that there are no limits.