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

Act III: Realism, Exoticism, and Representation

  1. 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, Mozart’s Magic Flute, which is clearly "unrealistic," is viewed by many as a relatively unproblematic piece—at 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 Glass’s opera, describes some of the music of Akhnaten as "orientalizing" (Frandsen 250). Derek Scott implies otherwise, when he places Glass’s opera in the same category as Handel’s 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:

  2. The crucial question seems to be…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 BLO’s 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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. Akhnaten’s 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 Akhnaten’s 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 Waltari’s novel The Egyptian and the Hollywood film based on this novel. But this view of Akhnaten is not wholly congruous with Glass and Zimmerman’s 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 of—white, academic, liberal—political correctness?

  5. 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 pharaoh’s facial features would appear to lend support to this admittedly speculative theory. Whether the BLO’s production team where aware of Bernal’s 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 BLO’s production of Akhnaten accurately reinforced ideas that were present in the music and libretto of Glass’s 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, there’s 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 Glass’s Akhnaten." Musical Quarterly. 77:2 (1993): 241-267.

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. "Director’s Notes." Theatre Bill. The Wang Center for the Performing Arts, The Schubert Theatre. Jan.-Feb. 2000, 22-23.


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John Richardson
City University, London


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