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Opera Daily 🎶 — Don't hate Philip Glass
Akhnaten and how an opera gets made
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Many people who dislike Philip Glass don’t listen to his music in a way that makes it effective.
If you sit down and let the repetitions happen, and if you are actually listening, you’ll hear how those repetitions that change chords slowly have a very distinct and interesting effect on you.
Listen to African drumming that goes on for hours.
I promise, if it has stood the test of time and influenced others, it’s worth finding what makes it good, even if it’s not your favorite music.
Whether you are on the love or hate end of the spectrum with Glass or other contemporary classical music, it highlights a principal component of enjoying new things—a willingness to engage with them.
Akhnaten is a modern opera by Philip Glass, first performed in 1984 at Staatstheater Stuttgart.
Akhnaten tells the story of the Egyptian Pharaoh who, during his 17-year reign, rid Egypt of its worship of many gods and established the sun as its one true god. He is considered the first monotheist. The opera represents a fever dream version of ancient Egypt.
The third in Glass' trilogy of operas about men who changed the world in which they lived through the power of their ideas, Akhnaten’s subject is religion. The opera describes the rise, reign, and fall of Akhnaten in a series of tableaux (a sequence of visualizations that work together to convey information).
The opera opened this week at the Met. Akhnaten and Nefertiti’s Act II duet, in which they affirm their love for each other, is the only one I could track down.
🎧 Listening Example: (1 minute listen): Anthony Roth Costanzo and Rihab Chaieb sing Akhnaten and Nefertiti’s Act II love duet in the final dress rehearsal at The Metropolitan Opera, Production: Phelim McDermott, Conductor: Karen Kamensek, 2021–22 season
Pulling off the opera Akhnaten takes the coordination of hundreds of people.
There are dozens of musicians, over 60 performers (including twelve professional jugglers), stage designers, make-up artists, and more.
The vocal text of Akhnaten, is sung in three languages of the ancient Near East (Egyptian, Akkadian and Biblical Hebrew).
I stumbled on this video by Vox that was made during when the opera premiered in the 2019-2020 season. It gives a behind-the-scenes look at the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Akhnaten. It follows American countertenor, Anthony Roth Costanzo who plays Akhnaten, through the various phases of rehearsal, from working with his vocal coach in a Manhattan apartment to taking the stage for a dress rehearsal.
Let’s listen to another selection from when the opera first appeared in the 2019-2020 season.
In this piece, Akhnaten sings a private prayer to his god. His vision of a new religion and a new society is complete.
🎧 Listening Example: (1 minute listen): Anthony Roth Costanzo sings an excerpt from Akhnaten’s Act II Hymn to the Sun in the final dress rehearsal, Production: Phelim McDermott, Conductor: Karen Kamensek, 2019–20 season.
The conductor of this production, Karen Kamensek, a specialist in contemporary music, was a doctoral student and vocal coach while I was studying at Indiana University.
As an eleven-year-old, Karen would watch the Met broadcasts on Saturday afternoons, always clear that her path was on the podium.
It is no surprise that her career has been on a tear for the last ten years. Karen was always a force of nature, always possessing wisdom beyond her years, always giving us singers a hard time in the studio because she saw what we were capable of, even when we couldn’t.
Ironically when I was doing research for this selection, I learned that Indiana University did a production of Akhnaten with countertenor Nicholas Tamagna singing Akhnaten.
The selection below is “The Window of Appearances”. Here the Pharaoh reveals his intentions to form a monotheistic religion. He changes his name from Amenhotep IV (meaning ‘spirit of Amon’) to Akhnaten (meaning ‘spirit of Aten). Aten, the sun god, is glorified by Akhnaten, his wife Nefertiti, and Queen Tye, his mother.
🎧 Listening Example: (8 minute listen): “The Window Of Appearances”, Akhnaten by Philip Glass, Nicholas Tamagna (Akhnaten), Olivia Savage (Queen Tye), Sarah Ballman (Nefertiti), Indiana University, Jacobs School of Music, 2013
Akhnaten is one of composer Philip Glass’s three “portrait” operas. The operas in the trilogy are all based around different themes:
Akhnaten is divided into three acts:
Act I: Year 1 of Akhnaten’s Reign in Thebes
Act II: Years 5 to 15 in Thebes
Act III: Year 17 and the Present
As with the other operas, Philip Glass’s Akhnaten doesn’t follow a conventional narrative. The story is told through a series of tableaux (a sequence of visualizations that work together to convey information). Also true to Glass’s form, the opera consists of various languages and dialogue rooted in ancient texts – including the Book Of The Dead.
If you interested in learning more about Anthony Roth Costanzo, here’s an interview he did with Living the Classical Life
Thank you for reading (and listening),
PS. If you missed last week's selection, we honored Spanish mezzo-soprano Teresa Berganza, by hearing her sing some Mozart, Rossini, and more.
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