In 1976 minimalist composer Philip Glass collaborated with theater director Robert Wilson (a Waco, Texas, native and UT alum) to create the "portrait opera" Einstein on the Beach. Glass's hypnotic music -- lyrics such as "armed robbery is punishable by 20 years in jail" were repeated over and over and over -- combined with Wilson's adventurous stage design to make Einstein so far-out it was in. An international success, Einstein elevated Glass from the New York underground to superstar composerdom and prompted Eugene Ionesco to call Wilson the most important dramatist in America.
Over two decades later, Glass and Wilson have created another epic production, Monsters of Grace: A Digital Opera in Three Dimensions. The experiment in performance theater features music by the Philip Glass Ensemble with lyrics based on the English-translated poetry of 13th-century Persian mystic Jelaluddin Rumi. In keeping with the lyrics, Glass adds samples of Middle Eastern string and percussion instruments to his usual Western classical-instrument and synthesizer sounds.
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As avant-garde as Glass's music can be, Monsters' 3-D animation ventures even further. The cardboard 3-D glasses you get at the door are straight out of the movie theaters of the '50s, but its "projected stereoscopic animation" is newer stuff, technology pioneered by Universal Studios theme parks and until now never deployed by intellectual artistes. Among Wilson's 13 animated sequences are a helicopter flying over the Great Wall of China, a sea monster attacking a floating house and a dragonfly flitting above the crowd.
Critics are likely to call it another landmark production from two revolutionaries that will push opera into the 21st century. The rest of us will either love it or hate it. The nice thing is that this time around it will take you only 67 minutes to decide. In 1976 the Einstein on the Beach audience was trapped, for better or worse, in the world of Wilson and Glass for four and a half hours.
-- Paul J. MacArthur
Society for the Performing Arts presents Monsters of Grace Thursday through Saturday, March 18 through 20, at 8 p.m. Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. Call (713)227-ARTS for tickets, $26-$40.