Whitman College remains, more than a year after its inception, a bone-barren space.
As sprawling and massive as the sky above it, the College enacts a Los Angelization against the loose-packed calm of down-campus.
The University spreads and scatters, loses focus, in its race from Nassau St. to Lake Carnegie. Down-campus is the fizzy, gassy tail to up-campus’ comet.
On a damp Friday afternoon in November, traversing the broad, entirely empty main courtyard has the feeling of trespassing. Whitman’s Class of 1970 theater is the setting, this particular Friday afternoon, for a screening of ‘Einstein and Margarita,’ a so-called “media opera” composed by Iraida Iusupova and with libretto by Iusupova and the poet Vera Pavlova. There had been an interdisciplinary panel on Albert Einstein earlier that afternoon in the same space. Coffee was served between the panel and the screening. Desserts, too.
Inspired by a series of love letters written in Princeton by the 66-year-old physicist and addressed to Russian émigré and Soviet spy Margarita Konenkova, ‘Einstein and Margarita’ was written in 2005 for a symphony orchestra accompanied by electronic music, choir, and five soloists. Iusupova and Pavlova initially received a $25,000 grant from the Russian government, enough only to produce a full soundtrack recorded with the Symphony Orchestra of Russia, conducted by Mark Kadin, and the Moscow Kremlin Chapel Choir.
Now, unable to secure further funding for a full stage production of their work, the authors have released their opera-myth as a video installation—produced by Iusupova and her husband, the cinematographer Aleksandr Dolgin—that blends original footage with photographs, clips from classic Hollywood movies and documentaries, and abstract animation—all set, of course, to the $25,000 soundtrack.
At particular odds with a fiercely demand-side perception of the creative process is the work-in-chrysalis. Painters have their sketchbooks, MCs and DJs have their mixtapes, rocksters have their dust-eaten eight-tracks. Opera gets a scribble-stained libretto, on a good day, but really, our patience—or, more aptly, the patience of the non-specialist—for the operatic form is staked in its being overripe with sprawl and artifice. Opera is not supposed to be gap-toothed and patchy; it is supposed to be big and bold and beautiful and slightly extraterrestrial all at once.
Confounding things further is the fact that our enthusiasm for the unfinished usually extends only to those artists whose finished work has already validated their creators’ worthiness. Our curiosity for Smile and Chinese Democracy, our skyward fantasies about Mahler’s Tenth or Kubrick’s Napoleon, our packrat’s romancing of Dylan bootlegs and Pavement tapes, even; these derive entirely from our comfortable awareness that these artists have proven themselves and must be so overrun with brilliance that even their table scraps must be toothsome and worthy. Our selective, highly insular interest in work-in-progress leaves us ill equipped to consider the alien art object thrust at our midsection by an accosting stranger; we
are gagged by our narrowness and faddishness, our eyes bloodshot and mouth agape, not speaking.
The brief introductory remarks—delivered by Pavlova’s frequent collaborator and translator, Steven Seymour—limned in hushed tones the bottomless mysteriousness of the work we were about to witness. ‘Einstein and Margarita’ is an opera of operas, he said, a commentary on the operatic genre as such. It is performed in seven different languages, with the seventh being the language of science: fifteen formulas from relativity are translated into music in the score. Einstein’s renowned mass-energy equivalence (E=MC2), we are told, is as especially divine as leitmotif as it is as expression of unfathomably general physical truth.
And so the lights dimmed, and the DVD spun. Black and white and the nether-values in between flickered into existence. The music—a consommé of agile vocal opera and jazz fragments, with a theremin looping and bending in between—loomed large but was bound inextricably to the illegible visuals. I have long fancied that there is a distinct pleasure-point activated by the way old movies look—not in any direct, surface-level way, but rather in the peripheral visual information that swims in the subconscious eye. Herky-jerky subtitles, creeping crackling blackness in the corners of frames, and clack-clack projector white noise work on us in the same manner that do the musk of old books and the particular way in which a color photograph fades.
Einstein and Margarita does not walk this way. There is an endemic ugliness to video, a blocky, mechanical rigidness with which artists have rough-and-tumbled variously for over four decades. Einstein’s gumbo of found footage and nonrepresentational PowerPoint splatter provides no even enamel for this uneven visual surface. Cartoon atomic bombs sprouting long, bare ladies’ legs in high heels danced around. Textures rippled by. Walls of text—Cyrillic, mostly—chummed around with the images once in a while, if you were plucky and speedy enough to follow along. Mathematical formulae pirouetted about; tiny, terrifying, smiling human faces orbited an illustration of a nucleus. A basso profondo like a foghorn split the air. This particular soloist, we were told before the screening started, is perhaps the profoundest basso that exists in the world at this time.
Then it happened. We were somewhere in Act 3, in the studio of Sergei Konenkov, sculptor and husband of Margarita. Suddenly, the DVD began to skip. The picture jumped, froze, and blinked for a few seconds before just plain crapping out. An attempt was made to clean the disc and try again, but the picture just would not budge past a certain dead point. The lights came on, as a more extensive cleaning effort was undertaken. People took this opportunity to stand up, stretch, talk hermeneutics, discuss the nice arias. Some people just left.
Petre Petrov—Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, emcee, popinjay—saw his moment and took the stage. “I never liked the DVDs, as a technology,” he said. This disc, Petrov explained, had been mailed from Switzerland over two months ago, got lost in transit, and arrived in Princeton only recently. Pavlova had been slated to host a discussion after the screening, so Petrov asked her to take the stage early: first, to describe the rest of the story and then to discuss the thing.
She stood, Pavlova, frail and smallish with long, stockinged legs, her high cheekbones and broad jaw poking out from under an expansive silk scarf, and spoke, through Seymour. Right after where the DVD froze, there is an ax fight that takes place in Konenkov’s studio, she told us, which results in the destruction of the sculptor’s unfinished bust of Einstein. A duet is performed during this fight; Pavlova sang a few bars. In Act 4, Margarita declares that all the atomic stuff is trifling compared to her love for Einstein. I’m paraphrasing, here.
The elderly Russian couple sitting in front of me nodded thoughtfully through this gloss. The professors left over from the interdisciplinary panel brayed when Pavlova described the more dramatic bits, clasping their hands together and bobbing their heads delightedly.
Without plans for commercial distribution or acquisition of further funding for a proper staging, Einstein and Margarita exists in a Purgatorio in which the work’s best parts must exist in the mind’s ear, their existence and power vindicated in reality only by the nodding heads and gesticulation of an audience most grateful.
The road from Pavlova’s chirping, chattering Russian to Seymour’s sonorous English was surely not without some blustery editorializing. The farewell duet at the end of Act 4, Seymour translated, is “heart-rending.” The Latin, a cappella Lachrymosa that tops the epilogue off was pronounced “so beautiful that there are no words to describe it.” There was a note of apology in Seymour’s purpleness, a deep frustration with the circumstances not only that evening but in leading to his presenting this video object to a basement room in Whitman College instead of his offering a staged masterpiece to a packed, adoring House, to a sold-out parquet. During the brief discussion that followed, Seymour confessed that he and Pavlova had been to the Metropolitan Opera two weeks earlier to see John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, another opera about the nuclear endgame of the Second World War. “If we had the kind of money they had,” he said, “we could have done some far greater.”
A few people tried to pencil out what it all meant, what this “media opera” thing is and could be. Someone suggested that the video version’s juxtaposition of parody and reality complements the trepidatious amalgam that the libretto enacts more than a staged version ever could. Michael Gordin, a professor of History of Science at Princeton, marveled at the creative destruction that the authors’ financial woes had allowed blossom, comparing the process to that of independent filmmakers in the ‘60s being forced to coin a new single-camera vocabulary entirely because they could only afford one camera.
And just when a great throwing-up of hands was imminent, Silvan Schweber, a professor of Physics and History of Science at Brandeis, clasped his hands together once more and simply thanked them all—Pavlova and Seymour and Petrov and the rest—just for sharing their work with us. Art is an impossible presence, and even its shadows and footprints have a grand, unifying agency.
It’s dark out now, really fucking dark. The big Triangle Show searchlights cut the ash-gray clouds in the distance. The gaudy, complacent permanence around me—that of Whitman College, of a new/not-new Triangle Show every few months—seems to mock the hard scrabble of this small, delicate thing I have now known.