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the Complete Review
the complete review - libretto


Karl Mickel

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To purchase the CD of Einstein

Title: Einstein
Author: Karl Mickel
Genre: Libretto
Written: 1974
Length: 39 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Einstein - US (CD recording)
Einstein - UK (CD recording)
Einstein - Deutschland (CD recording)
  • Libretto for an opera, with music by Paul Dessau
  • First performed 16 February 1974 at the Deutsche Staatsoper (Unter den Linden) in Berlin.
  • First published in East and West Germany in 1974 -- but note that there are slight textual differences between the editions.
  • Einstein is currently out of print, but is available on CD, in Ruth Berghaus' production, conducted by Otmar Suitner, with Theo Adam (as Einstein), Peter Schreier, and Reiner Süß. The CD includes the libretto.

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Our Assessment:

A- : a striking piece, taking perhaps too many historical liberties but making for effective drama

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
American Record Guide F 5-6/97 Kurt Moses
c r Quarterly B+ 2/2001 M.A.Orthofer
Opera News D 8/3/97 Bill Zakariasen

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus. The summary reviews in American Record Guide and Opera News are dismissive -- they hate it. (Note also that in these reviews the critics are somewhat more enthusiastic about the quality of the singing and of the recording itself.) The longer piece in the complete review Quarterly examines the libretto more thoroughly and gives Mickel considerably more credit.

  From the Reviews:
  • "When Dessau wrote Einstein in 1971-3, Brecht was long dead; but the composer continued in this work to falsify history in order to score political points. In fact, it's worse here. The libretto, by Karl Mickel (obviously an ideological soul-mate of the composer), is an even cruder piece of agit-prop that Lucullus. (...) (A) shoddy and obnoxious piece." - American Record Guide, Kurt Moses

  • "Einstein is a programmatic piece, its themes still strikingly contemporary. Modern audiences, suspicious of science, are likely to be receptive to much of Mickel's argument. Certainly he presents it effectively, form transcending content. However, the very aesthetic appeal of the text frustrates a rigorous analytic approach. Mickel is both a supreme craftsman and a poet. His talent lulls, readily allowing affect to substitute for reason. The dramaturgic and literary strengths of the libretto obscure the manipulative nature of the text." - M.A.Orthofer, complete review Quarterly

  • "In his 1974 Einstein the composer, adapting a libretto from Karl Mickel, aimed to show that the great physicist/humanist Albert Einstein was really a Stalinist (.....) What we have is an insane fantasy running the gamut from Leonardo Da Vinci through Galileo to Hitler." - Bill Zakariasen, Opera News

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       After World War II Bertolt Brecht, who tackled the subject of the ethical obligations of the scientist in his Life of Galileo, was tempted to write an Einstein-piece as well. He never got around to it, but composer Paul Dessau (who wrote the music to numerous Brecht plays) could not let go of the idea after Brecht's death. He finally enlisted Karl Mickel, with whom he worked on several projects, and in the early 1970s they completed their striking opera.
       A dense libretto, it centers around Einstein, the terrible knowledge that scientists have unleashed on the world -- specifically the atomic bomb --, and the obligation scientists have to society. Mickel simplifies Einstein's biography, and twists it to fit his piece, effectively using the modern image of the man (in contrast to the actual historical person).
       In Mickel's libretto, Einstein is still in Germany at the time of the infamous book-burning in May, 1933 (Einstein was, in fact in America at the time). Burnt in effigy, Einstein realizes he must flee and does so; two scientists remain behind, the Old Physicist (who has lived through several changes in regime and wants to ignore politics and focus only on science) and the torn Young Physicist. Work on the atomic bomb begins in Germany, with the Old Physicist relying on Einstein's research to design the terrible weapon. The Young Physicist flees to America where he warns Einstein of what the Nazis are doing. Einstein realizes the danger that such an atomic device poses.
       Einstein is forbidden to be politically active in America, but he manages to reach the President and warn of the need to respond to the German threat. The President throws his complete support behind him. Mickel then takes his greatest liberty, making Einstein a pivotal contributor to the actual building of the atomic bomb.
       When Germany is defeated Einstein believes that this peace obviates the need to complete work on the atomic bomb (Mickel conveniently (or Euro-centrically) ignoring the continued fighting in the Pacific theatre). Disillusionment comes when the Americans insist on completing the terrible weapon. Despite the Old Physicist's having worked for the Nazis his knowledge is also deemed so valuable that he is allowed to go unpunished and is recruited to work on the atomic bomb -- science portrayed as completely above politics and/or completely corrupt.
       In a McCarthy-like hearing after the war all three scientists are accused of having signed a letter (the text of which is largely taken from Einstein's famous Frauenglass letter, protesting against the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings). The Young and the Old Physicist essentially betray Einstein, naming names, while only Einstein stands behind what he wrote.
       The Young Physicist also becomes disillusioned, and the solution he chooses is to betray his adopted country, deciding to share the secrets to the atomic bomb with the communist nations, in the hope that by spreading knowledge the terrible knowledge will go unused. East German though he was, Mickel remains decidedly ambivalent about this solution. Instead he sides with Einstein, who eventually chooses to burn the last twenty years worth of his research (again a historical liberty with no basis in fact): no society is capable of handling this knowledge, he feels, and so they must do without it.
       The dense text contains far more: intermezzi in which a hapless Hanswurst (a Punch and Judy type figure) stands in for the German people, three humanist sages (Leonardo, Galileo, and Giordano Bruno) looking over Einstein (while also acting as frames of reference for him -- he is neither willing to recant, as Galileo did, or be sacrificed for his beliefs, as Bruno was; instead he follows Leonardo in not sharing his knowledge). Mickel writes exceptionally well. The style is compact and sprightly. Mickel covers a great deal in his text, but it is all packed in powerfully and poetically. No words are wasted, and yet it does not feel rushed or as though anything was left out.
       Einstein paints a dark picture of modern society, unfit to deal with the scientific advances that appear at an ever-increasing rate. Mickel roundly condemns the genus scientist for thinking only of their science and not the consequences -- an attitude that is perhaps again more popular now than it was when Mickel wrote the play. Aspects of the piece are decidedly anti-American, but the ideological objection is not specifically that of an idealistic socialist denouncing evil capitalism; rather, what Mickel is specifically objecting to is the use of science in this (and all) society. The communist solution (the path taken by the Young Physicist) is given a decidedly lukewarm endorsement as well. It is Einstein's solution -- the destruction of knowledge in order to keep it out of the hands of those that are not ready to use it -- that is seen as the only responsible one.
       Einstein is a remarkable and powerful piece, whatever one might think of its basic argument. Well-constructed and well-written, it is an excellent piece of theatre.

       The opera Einstein is still occasionally performed, mainly on German-language stages. The excellent recording of the Ruth Berghaus production is highly recommended: Paul Dessau's music may not be to everyone's taste, but it gives the words full play (and the words are what count in this piece). Theo Adam shines in the title role.

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Einstein: Karl Mickel: Paul Dessau: Albert Einstein: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       (East) German poet, essayist, and dramatist Karl Mickel (1935-2000) was editor of the controversial 1966 anthology of East German poetry, In diesem besseren Land. An important poet, he was also a member of the Berliner Ensemble and wrote several opera-libretti.

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