OPERA: Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten”

A Modern American Opera With An Ancient, Exotic Feel ◆ by Kristen Strandberg

Philip Glass’s music often conveys a sense of mesmerizing calmness, yet can just as easily–and sometimes simultaneously–provoke a sense of unease. Such is the case with his 1984 opera, Akhnaten, which the IU Opera Theater will perform on February 22 and 23, and March 1 and 2.  While the IU Opera often performs one or two contemporary works each season, this marks their first performance of a Glass opera.  Akhnaten may be slightly more challenging for listeners than this season’s Mozart or Verdi operas, yet Glass’s music is still accessible and somewhat familiar.  Much of the opera’s music contains the unmistakable sounds of Glass’s minimalist style, in which short musical fragments are repeated over long periods of time with slow-changing harmonies.  Yet, Akhnaten’s dissonant sounds set it apart from Glass’s well-known piano music and earlier opera Einstein on the Beach, giving it a foreign, ancient feel.

“Anhkaten” At The IU MAC

The mesmerizing and reflective quality of Glass’s music has a powerful effect when paired with visual images or a narrative.  He has written music for several films, such as Candyman (1992), The Truman Show (1998), and The Hours (2002), which received nine Academy Award nominations including Best Original Score.  In film, the synergy between Glass’s score and the on-screen images offers depth and insight into the narrative: during Virginia Wolf’s suicide scene in The Hours, the mesmerizing calmness of Glass’s score offers psychological insight into the character, giving the viewer a sense of peace and finality in spite of the urgency and distress of the visual images.  The 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi offers a similar alliance between image and Glass’s music.  The film consists entirely of landscapes and city scenes without dialogue or narrative, and while the landscape scenes are often beautiful, Glass’s repetitive minimalist music can be deeply unsettling, giving the viewer the sense that something is very wrong; later scenes showing the effects of pollution confirm this sense.

Glass’s operatic music similarly complements images on stage.  Written in 1984, Akhnaten is Glass’s third opera, telling the story of an ancient Egyptian king who is overthrown after his attempts to impose religious reform on his kingdom. The music complements the ancient Egyptian setting, altering our sense of time and place because of its unfamiliar and somewhat unsettling nature.

Throughout the opera, the instruments and voices create layers of sounds; the strings, brass, percussion, and voices each repeat their own musical ideas without interacting with each other, producing a sense of organized chaos.  The Act 1 love duet between Akhnaten and Nefertiti demonstrates this effect while also speaking to Akhnaten’s desire to abolish polygamy in his kingdom. The duet features Glass’s signature repetition in the orchestra, while the two voices interject in their own style, perhaps symbolizing the characters’ unity in conflict with the desires of the polygamous kingdom.  Other elements, such as dissonance and a lack of sustained notes and vocal beauty, remind the listener that this is not a nineteenth-century operatic love story, but a much more distant, unfamiliar one.

Akhnaten is performed by twelve solo voices, a chorus, and a narrator, with a mixture of sung and spoken text.  Glass and his collaborators drew upon various sources for the text, including the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Bible, and several letters and poems.  Each segment is performed in the source’s original language- English, Hebrew, or Egyptian.

The IU Opera Theater will perform Akhnaten at 8 pm on February 22 and 23, and March 1 and 2 at the Musical Arts Center.  Additionally, they will join the Indianapolis opera for two performances on March 8 and 9 at Clowes Memorial Hall on the campus of Butler University.

The Ryder, February 2013