Act III: Realism, Exoticism, and Representation
- The question of realism is clearly related
to the recent debates on exoticism and representations of the
"Orient." Exotic stereotyping "is not," as Ralph
Locke has commented, "necessarily as repressive and regrettable"
as is made out to be the case in some of the more provocative
postcolonialist texts (Locke 106). But it can be. The consensus
seems to be that there is more of a danger of misrepresenting
another when the representations in question are transparent and
realistic. If they are not, if there remains some distance between
the representations and the reality represented, then identification
of a person or group becomes less of a possibility. Thus, Mozarts
Magic Flute, which is clearly "unrealistic,"
is viewed by many as a relatively unproblematic pieceat
least with respect to the issue of exoticism (gender is a very
different matter). Aida, although defended by Said himself
(134-57), among others, is regarded by many as a more problematical
piece. Opinions are divided apropos of Akhnaten. Paul John
Frandsen, an Egyptologist who wrote an article on Glasss
opera, describes some of the music of Akhnaten as "orientalizing"
(Frandsen 250). Derek Scott implies otherwise, when he places
Glasss opera in the same category as Handels Israel
in Egypt, as a piece of music that does not have any purported
"Egyptian" content (Scott 321). In my Singing Archaeology,
I identified the central issues pertaining to Akhnaten
and exotic musical coding as follows:
The crucial question seems
whether there is anything in the music or the drama
that marks the contemporary rather than the ancient culture as
other and in this way stigmatizes it in the eyes or the ears of
audiences. Is geographical location alone enough to establish
such a link? The conflation of the contemporary and the ancient
can, of course, be suggested in the music by using exotic scales
or rhythms, for example, that evoke scales or rhythms that are
still in use in the region in question or that in some way conjure
up stereotyped images of that region for Western listeners. There
is very little of that kind of representation in Akhnaten,
although there are, admittedly, some moments when the music does
seem to connote "ancient Egyptian-ness" in a relatively
indirect way (in the use of reed or percussion instruments; in
the use of the "lowered" second and third of the scale;
etc.). (Richardson 195)
The BLOs production did nothing to
contradict this impression. Its inclusion as part of a season
and larger cultural event called "Egypt in Boston" is
not, however, entirely problem free. We have seen that Glass himself
felt compelled to differentiate between ancient and contemporary
Egypt. He did this by setting one scene of the opera in contemporary
Egypt. The creative team behind Egypt in Boston felt no such compulsion,
and by not explicitly pointing out that they were referring to
European and North American impressions of (ancient) Egypt and
not examples of contemporary Egyptian artistic production, they
demonstrated remarkable insensitivity to the concerns of those
who might have had an interest in the latter category. The nearest
"Egypt on Boston" got to including some contemporary
Egyptian input in one of their events was a screening at the Museum
of Science of the National Geographical IMAX film Mysteries
of Egypt, featuring the Egyptian actor Omar Sharif as a narrator.
The point is not that the event was as such wrong, or that political
correctness should dictate that all such events include some authentic
indigenous contribution. Rather, that the largely implicit conflation
of ancient and contemporary, Western and Egyptian, in the title
of the event, created the impression that the Egypt on offer was
the only Egypt. Had the event been called "Ancient
Egypt in Boston," or "Western Impressions of Egypt,"
the problem would not have been so manifest.
- The other interesting issue relating to
recent postcolonialist theory is the casting of a black singer
in the title role. Not only casting him in this way but having
him represented in this way in all of the paraphernalia surrounding
the production: bookmarks, posters, programs, and so on. Perhaps
the effect is reinforced by the fact that this is a role for the
counter-tenor voice, with all of its cultural and gender-related
baggage. One still sees relatively few black counter-tenors in
the classical music scene. What a surprise, then, not only to
see a black man as Akhnaten but a black counter-tenor. Of course
there is no reason why this should not be the case, but the stereotype
relating to black operatic singers is still extremely pervasive.
Cultural conditioning in the West somehow makes it easier to accept
the dark, brooding, soulful, passionate, and menacing Othello
stereotype, preferably equipped with a rich, powerful bass or
baritone voice. A far cry from the mild-mannered, contemplative
counter-tenor we see in this role. Full marks to Zimmerman and
her team for breaking with convention in this way.
- The iconography surrounding the opera does
raise some problems, however, and offers new solutions. The main
artistic representation of the pharaoh is essentially a deconstruction
of the character, much in the vein of some of the recent archaeological
writing on the subject. Akhnatens sun god is bound together
with tape or papyrus. Presumably it would disintegrate if it were
not bound in this way. And there is something not quite right
about the man himself. The horizon is slanted and waves emanating
from the sun disk encompass Akhnatens head, giving the impression
perhaps that his view of reality is somehow skewed, distorted.
This view of Akhnaten as someone delusional, fanatical, sun-struck
or not entirely sane resembles that propagated in some of the
archaeological literature as well as popular representations,
such as Mika Waltaris novel The Egyptian and the
Hollywood film based on this novel. But this view of Akhnaten
is not wholly congruous with Glass and Zimmermans portrayal,
which is fundamentally sympathetic to the pharaoh and the causes
championed by him. So the question becomes, to what extent does
the Akhnaten of the poster art conform to the Othello stereotype;
that of the black man out of control? Or is the asking of this
question merely another example ofwhite, academic, liberalpolitical
- The idea of a black Akhnaten has other
implications, similar to those raised by the historian Martin
Bernal in his Black Athena: the Afroasiatic Roots of Classical
Civilization (1990). In this highly controversial deconstructive
account of the history of the ancient world, Bernal posits a (predominantly
black) African as opposed to a (European) Hellenic origin to many
ideas we conventionally associate with the latter category. In
this book, Bernal goes against the grain of Egyptological opinion
by suggesting that Akhnaten was black. The pharaohs facial
features would appear to lend support to this admittedly speculative
theory. Whether the BLOs production team where aware of
Bernals theory, I do not know. But the implications are
similar: a black man may have been behind a major religious revolution
in ancient Egypt, a revolution which many contemporary scientists
agree almost certainly influenced some of the central tenets of
Judeo-Christian monotheism. Western ideas may not, therefore,
be as thoroughly Western as was previously thought. In this respect,
I would hold that despite its shortcomings, the BLOs production
of Akhnaten accurately reinforced ideas that were present
in the music and libretto of Glasss opera. That this message
was somewhat obscured by its inclusion in a larger event not entirely
sensitive to progressive notions of identity, influence and representation
is unfortunate. On the other hand, it could be argued that the
programming of Akhnaten alongside these other Western representations
of Egypt only served to highlight its own distinct position with
respect to these issues.
Bernal, Martin. Black Athena: The Afroasiatic
Roots of Classical Civilization. London: Vintage, 1990.
Carney, Beth, and Jim Sullivan. "For
Glass, theres not much time for a break." The Boston
Globe. 3 Feb. 2000: C2.
Dyer, Richard. "Shimmering Glass."
The Boston Globe. 28 Jan. 2000:D1 and D8.
Frandsen, Paul John. "Philip Glasss
Akhnaten." Musical Quarterly. 77:2 (1993):
Glass, Philip. Music by Philip Glass.
New York: Da Capo Press, 1987.
---. Public talk on Akhnaten.
Shubert Theatre, Boston. 31 Jan. 2000.
Locke, Ralph P. "Cutthroats and Casbah
Dancers, Muezzins and Timeless Sands: Musical Images of the Middle
East." The Exotic in Western Music. Ed. Jonathan Bellman.
Boston: Northeastern UP, 1998. 104-136.
Mancini Del Sesto, Janice. Introduction
to public talk by Philip Glass and Beatrice Jona Afron. Museum
of Fine Arts, Boston. 2 Feb 2000.
Richardson, John. Singing Archaeology:
Philip Glass's Akhnaten. Hanover and London: Wesleyan UP and
University Press of New England, 1999.
Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism.
London: Vintage, 1993.
Scott, Derek B. "Orientalism and Musical
Style." Musical Quarterly. 82:2 (1998): 308-335.
Zimmerman, Mary. "Directors Notes."
Theatre Bill. The Wang Center for the Performing Arts,
The Schubert Theatre. Jan.-Feb. 2000, 22-23.