112. Opera Encore – Thoughts on the Met’s Recent Production of Akhnaten by Philip Glass
Wednesday I journeyed two hours north to Bloomington, Indiana. My immediate business was a meeting I had arranged with Professor Keith Cochran, head of the music librarianship specialization at Indiana University. He and I had a nice conversation about the program, and he also gave me a tour of the William and Gayle Cook Music Library at the Jacobs School where I would work if admitted. Afterwards I walked over to the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering where my classes would be. Generally I liked what I found at IU, and I look forward to submitting my application over the next few weeks.
Yet the reason I chose Wednesday, and no other day, to come to Bloomington was that evening’s encore showing of Akhnaten—an opera by American composer Philip Glass—in the new production by the Metropolitan Opera. The Met, for those who don’t know, broadcasts much of their season to local movie theaters around the country in a series called The Met: Live in HD. The main series comes live from New York City, but some theaters also host additional showings of taped performances, such as the encore I attended. Philip Glass has always been a favorite composer of mine. He was one of the first contemporary composers whose music I discovered (circa 2008), and I have continued to enjoy and investigate his compositions ever since. Before I started this blog, I had the chance to hear violinist Robert McDuffie play and discuss his Second Violin Concerto, An American Four Seasons, with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in January 2012. McDuffie had commissioned this concerto, and he recounted how he had suggested to Glass that he add the part for synthesizer harpsichord as a throwback to his early works for the Philip Glass Ensemble. He also told how Glass wanted to keep the specific seasons and their Vivaldi references a mystery, and that he and McDuffie had disagreed as to which season was which. After the performance, I had a chance to shake hands with McDuffie, and he signed a copy of his CD for me. Then there was the time that a presentation on Glass at AMS-SC inspired me to immediately run home afterward and purchase Einstein on the Beach, Glass’s first opera, on DVD. It has made quite the impression on me! I’ve also enjoyed watching documentaries on Glass, and his autobiography, Words Without Music, has been sitting on my bookshelf the last few years—I’ll actually need to read it sometime too! (For a discussion of Glass's aesthetic and some specific listening recommendations, take a look at Parts III and IV of my series, Contemporary Voices, from a few years back.)
Akhnaten premiered in Stuttgart in 1984, and it is the final opera in Glass’s “Portrait Trilogy” after Einstein and Satyagraha, an opera about Mahatma Gandhi. I can’t speak to Satyagraha, but I can say that Einstein on the Beach and Akhnaten are vastly different from each other. Einstein is a wild work, written for the Philip Glass Ensemble and without much of a narrative. Its fast-paced but slowly-changing musical motives make it a real feat for its musicians, all of whom need utmost precision but especially the singers who have to do everything from memory while also acting-out stylized motions. Akhnaten, although the music is still very much in Glass’s trademark idiom, differs from Einstein in a few ways. First of all it is written for the conventional orchestra with one notable exception—violins are excluded from the score. Secondly Akhnaten has a plot. Still narrative does not come through the traditional operatic means (i.e. recitative). There are, in fact, no recitatives and but one aria. A speaking narrator instead conveys the plot via amplified orations, often above instrumental interludes. Rather than arias, we get immense, slowly shifting tableaux. These are usually sung by chorus or two to three vocalists. The only solo aria is the protagonist’s Hymn to the Sun. This is the opera’s climax on several accounts: as the only aria; as a hymn to the god who Pharaoh Akhnaten has declared the one, true god; and as it arrives at what is effectively the golden ratio (the end of Act II). That Akhnaten is sung by a countertenor, an impressively high voice in the absence of violins, differentiates it further as does the fact that it is the only text in the entire opera sung in English—the rest is sung in ancient Egyptian or another unrecognizable tongue. Fragmentary, moreover, these unfamiliar texts do not have literal meaning and are left without subtitles.
All of these things struck me never having seen or heard Akhnaten prior to Wednesday’s showing. Yet they are true of any production of Akhnaten except that, in countries where English is not the native language, Hymn is to be sung in translation. The Met’s production—in particular—also wowed me! The countertenor, Anthony Roth Costanzo, had a beautiful voice which pierced through all else. Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges and bass-baritone Zachary James also gave stunning performances as Nefertiti, wife to Akhnaten, and in the spoken role of Amenhotep III. Much of the stage was arrayed in brightly-contrasting blue and orange, giving the entire production an unforgettable color in my memory. The thing about this production which made the most impression though was the juggling; everyone, including Glass himself apparently, was fascinated with the juggling. In an off-stage interview during intermission, professional juggler Sean Gandini told how he and his company of jugglers had introduced their art into this opera as inspired by an ancient Egyptian wall painting depicting juggling. In almost every scene then, unnamed cast members could be spotted juggling balls, small and large, and in-sync, it seemed, with Glass’s spinning arpeggios. The principals also had to learn to juggle, and once there were evidently as many as fifty-nine balls in the air! Gandini reported that Glass said all future productions of Akhnaten should have jugglers too it fits so well with the music.
December has already been a busy month, so I was glad to get away Wednesday and catch Akhnaten. This was a production not to be missed! I have enjoyed several Met Live broadcasts since moving to Louisville—mostly contemporary operas, but also Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. I would encourage anyone who enjoys opera to give the series a try if they haven’t already. It’s almost like being in a real opera house except you don’t need to dress-up and you’re usually one of fifteen to thirty devotees in attendance—not several hundred. It’s also fairly affordable. I plan to attend more Met broadcasts in the spring, if anyone would like to join me!
About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer graduated with his Master of Music in Music History and Literature from the University of Louisville in May 2019 following the completion of his thesis, “Liminal Aesthetics: Perspectives on Harmony and Timbre in the Music of Olivier Messiaen, Tristan Murail, and Kaija Saariaho.” He has shared this pioneering research at the American Musicological Society South-Central Chapter’s annual meetings in Asheville, NC and Sewanee, TN and at the University of Tennessee Contemporary Music Festival in Knoxville, TN; in March 2020, he will present at the Music by Women Festival in Columbus, MS. During Jackson’s studies in Louisville, he was the recipient of the Gerhard Herz Music History Scholarship and was employed at the Dwight Anderson Memorial Music Library where he did archival work for the unique Grawemeyer Collection which houses scores, recordings, and documentation for over five thousand entries by the world’s leading contemporary composers. Previously, Jackson graduated summa cum laude from the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, LA. Then, from 2014 to 2016, Jackson served as director of the successful chamber music series, Abendmusik Alexandria. He has remained a concert annotator and organizer, acting as Director of Scholarship of the annual Sugarmill Music Festival. A special project he is developing for the 2020 festival, “A Scholarly Presentation in Lecture and Music: Solomon Northup in the Central Louisiana Sugarhouse,” has recently been awarded a prestigious Rebirth Grant by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. Aside from his studies, he is a composer, choral singer, music blogger, avid reader, and award-winning nature photographer. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at www.JacksonHarmeyer.com.
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