Egypt in Boston

Notes on a recent production of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten by the Boston Lyric Opera and its programming alongside Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and Verdi’s Aida

Download a printable version
(PDF, 54K)

Act I: A Musicologist’s Question

  1. It is Monday, the 31st of January, 2000, a day off for the Boston Lyric Opera between performances of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, and the composer is coming to the end of a questions-and-answers session at the tail end of a public talk on the opera. Yours truly, "a musicologist who has written a book on the opera" (Mancini Del Sesto) determines to open his heretofore judiciously sealed gob and fire one final question at the composer. This question was to be regurgitated two days later in BLO director Janice Mancini Del Sesto’s introduction to Glass’s second public appearance in Boston and was to be inoffensively (but not insignificantly) misquoted in the following day’s issue of the Boston Globe.

  2. "Mr. Glass," the musicologist asks, "how do you feel about Akhnaten being a part of this new 'trilogy' now, along with Aida and The Magic Flute? It seems to me that the opera was designed…" (Glass presumably sees what is coming and heads the musicologist off at the pass, making his own amplified entry at this point).

  3. "Fabulous!" the composer retorts. "It’s very flattering! Mozart, Verdi and Glass! I mean, hey, what’s not to like? (The audience erupts into laughter.) I should probably thank you for asking that question. I don’t think anyone else would have thought of it! I always thought that I was the guy who wrote the other Egyptian opera! There are some other ones. There’re some Meyerbeer operas; some of these 19th century guys that wrote a lot of operas. Some of them wandered over to Egypt, but the ones we really know are these" (Glass, Public talk).

  4. The audience is both charmed and amused by the egotistical swagger of Glass’s response. Who, in his position, would not relish the opportunity to be cast alongside two of the undisputed pillars of the canon, to have his or her name carved in stone at the pinnacle of the BLO’s meticulously constructed operatic pyramid? Moreover, with the dawn of the new millennium, and some seventeen years having elapsed since the debut performance of Akhnaten, its inclusion in the "Egypt in Boston" season easily takes on a retrospective appearance. It is as if the annals of music history were now finally taking shape, the rightful heir to the operatic throne receiving his patiently awaited crown. A situation not dissimilar to that of Akhnaten himself in the Coronation scene, where he is seen prostrated before the two patriarchs, guardians of what Glass tellingly refers to as the ancient Egyptian "old order," Aye and Horemhab; his head bowed to receive the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt.

  5. Photographs courtesy of the author

  6. There is, however, an element of relief to the audience’s laughter. The question in all likelihood had some members of the audience shuffling in their seats. The transition from Glass’s former self, as toast of New York’s downtown avant-garde, to his present day self, as one of the luminaries of contemporary opera, has not been easy. His controversial derogatory comments concerning the repertory in the late 1970s and early 1980s are now a matter of record. These days Glass seems more adept at treading the middle path, more comfortable with ambiguities. Thus, the composer's great escape from the musicologist’s vain attempt to flag a possible discrepancy between his earlier (pre-1983) and his present day aesthetic positions could perhaps have been anticipated. And it was certainly not unappreciated by an audience comprising both those for whom the term contemporary opera implies almost anything after Wagner, and a considerably smaller contingent of those familiar with the tenets of Glass’s more experimental work in music and the theatre. Neither of these groups would have wanted to feel like gatecrashers at the composer’s party. And neither did.

  7. But the discrepancy I had wanted to highlight—the half-completed question quoted at the beginning of this text in which I tried to draw attention to what I perceived as a significant rapprochement with the canon in this work—is difficult to ignore. In his book, Glass constructs an aesthetic vision of a new "music theatre" in which "subject or content...could remain neither passive nor accidental" (Glass, Music 138); whereas Akhnaten, in one of the composer's public appearances in Boston, is described as the latest transformation in a genre that for the composer "has always been about the voice" (Glass, Public talk). Composers are commonly assumed to be ill-informed regarding the discursive concerns of recent cultural theory, an impression that has been reinforced by the modernist disdain towards all things "extramusical." But Glass's comment pertaining to the voice seems to imply an awareness of the ongoing debate between those who, following theorists like Barthes or Kristeva, celebrate the sensual materiality of the human voice, and those for whom subject matter and content, although not determining every aspect of reception, certainly play a key role in channeling the listener’s understanding of the music. Glass would seem to have shifted from the latter to the former of these positions. And if, as he puts it, opera has "always been about the voice," then negotiating the divide between Akhnaten and Aida clearly becomes considerably easier. Given such an aesthetic shift, the BLO’s historical-contemporary trilogy becomes a more attractive prospect, and the element of distancing from the repertory that is both implicit and explicit in Glass’s earlier position, also becomes less in evidence.

  8. So how significant is the shift between Glass’s earlier position and that put forward in Akhnaten? The most obvious marker is the very subject upon which the opera is based, irrespective of the "story-line" and the complexities of how the material is treated. The simple fact is that Glass’s previous two music theatre pieces were about contemporary figures. This grounding in the present day is a feature that has its roots in post-Cagean, postmodern aesthetics and can be recognized also in the works of contemporaries like Meredith Monk, John Adams, Laurie Anderson, and Gavin Bryars. But in returning to the past, Glass could not have been naïve as to the implications of this deed. The BLO, in including the opera alongside the two historical pieces, certainly were not naïve. It is clear that on a very general level Glass’s Akhnaten invokes both Aida, one of the grandest of grand operas, and The Magic Flute, arguably the most popular work in the repertory. Aesthetic kinships notwithstanding, the exotic subject matter of all three works signifies among other things, and perhaps most directly, the category "opera." All three works fit into this category, but with respect to Akhnaten just how comfortable is the fit? And what are the repercussions of this closer relationship between the contemporary and the historical? The remaining sections may provide some tentative answers to these questions.


1   2  3    Next

Top Button
Contents Button
Letter Button
Volume 2 Issue 2


Susan McClary:
Temporality and Ideology

Fink, Garofalo, Gebhardt,
and Partovi:

Music as Object?
A Napster Roundtable



Magical Urbanism

The Art of Piano

Review Essays

Experience Music Project

Tell us what you think...