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Arts and Entertainment

Violinist Jennifer Koh Talks About Playing Einstein In Philip Glass Opera

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Since its 1976 debut, Philip Glass's legendary avant-garde opera "Einstein on the Beach," directed by Robert Wilson, has attained near-mythic status as a landmark in contemporary art music. But it was never performed on the west coast until last year and it debuts in southern California tomorrow night, when LA Opera, in collaboration with CAP UCLA, presents the work at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Throughout much of the opera, Einstein himself is played not by a singer, but by a violinist. In the present revival, which began touring the United States last year, the part has frequently been performed by Jennifer Koh, one of America's top young classical musicians, and she will be appearing in the role once again in all three LA performances this weekend.

So what's a nice concert violinist like you doing in a production like this? What gave you the idea or inspired you to take on "Einstein"?

It was a great opportunity! It was a great honor to work with Robert Wilson and Philip Glass and to be part of this revival. It was really a groundbreaking work when it first premiered; it really changed the landscape of opera.

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How familiar were you already with the piece before you got involved?

Well, I think I was not born when it premiered, and then I wasn't old enough when the other revivals happened. So the only knowledge I kind of had of it was that I knew parts of the music and I knew about the opera itself. But there's nothing like the actual experience, I think, of going to "Einstein on the Beach" and so actually I wish that I was able--I mean, I've seen most of the scenes through the rehearsal process--but I wish I could experience the entire opera as an audience member. Because when you're in it, it's slightly different.

Coming into this with no acting experience, did you learn to develop any kind of actor's technique for getting into the character or in any way preparing for your performances as Einstein?

Oh, my goodness! I have to confess that I was nervous and I was asking some friends of mine that are actors what I should do to prepare. But this is such a really unique work that I don't think anything would have prepared me. And I was terrified! I remember the very first rehearsal, they asked, like, "Oh, can you walk to stage right?" and I had no idea where stage right was or stage left. So it was kind of terrifying to me. But I have to say that I really relish doing things that absolutely terrify me.

So did you study up on Einstein the man himself for the role, or is what you're doing at such a stylized remove that the historical Einstein doesn't figure into your sense of the character all that much?

I don't think I would have had the ability to really "act," because I don't have that training at all. But I think it's about embodying something--I can't even tell you exactly what it is. I mean, I am literally dressed as Einstein, but it's pretty abstract.

How would you say your relationship with the audience or your in-the-moment awareness of the audience is different as a theatrical performer than it is as a concert soloist?

I think it's the same. I don't feel it in a different a way. And in fact it's kind of strange: you still feel like yourself as a musician even with the costume.

Do you have a favorite moment in the opera or a favorite part of the opera that just sticks with you?

This may sound funny, but I actually think it's about experiencing it in its entirety. And that's what I meant when I said before that I had only experienced part of the music or had seen little clips, because it's really about the entire experience. It's very hard to just divide it into small parts, because it's about the process also of arriving at certain scenes. [So jumping straight to one part] would be like being born and then saying right away, like, "Okay, I want to be 40 or 50 now."

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I think you debuted in this production back in January of 2012. Do you have any more "Einstein" performances slated after this weekend, after LA?

No, not that are scheduled. This is my last performance!

Will you miss it?I think I really will. But Bob and I have more plans to work together--and so do Philip Glass and myself--so in a way I feel like we've kind of forged a creative family. Those relationships will continue, which makes me very happy.

Can you say what those future projects are?

I don't know if I'm allowed to talk about the one with Philip yet. But what I will say is that with Bob we're planning to do all six of the Bach solo sonatas and partitas, the complete violin work, which I'm so excited about.

Obviously it won't be a regular concert performance.

No, absolutely not, we're staging it. It will be a staged production. But everything with Bob is about process so we're still in the kind of workshopping phase. If I tell you it's about something now, it might be something completely different in six months and then it will be something completely different in 12 months and then something completely different....But I will say that we're staging all six sonatas and partitas.

And when will that be introduced to the world?

I'm hoping that it will come in the '15-'16 season or '16-'17. Why don't we just say 2016--that will average out both seasons.

LA Opera's presentation of "Einstein on the Beach" plays tomorrow and Saturday at 6:30 and Sunday at 2:00. (Note: the piece runs 4 1/2 hours without intermission, and audience members are permitted to leave and return to their seats during the performance.) Student and senior rush tickets may be available prior to the performances.