Philip Glass and Akhnaten

I’ve been a fan of Philip Glass for probably fifteen years or so. One of the CD’s of his that I own is called Songs From the Trilogy, with the Trilogy being three operas he wrote during the 70’s and 80’s, the first called Einstein on the Beach and the last called Akhnaten about an Egyptian pharaoh (I guess that’s the only kind). Einstein on the Beach is probably the most famous because it was whole different take on opera and classical music in general. However, of the songs on the Trilogy CD, the ones from Akhnaten are probably my favorites. When Susan and I were considering buying season tickets to the opera, one thing I liked was that they were going to do an optional fifth show at Emory University and it would be Akhnaten. I still hadn’t heard the whole opera, just the four songs that made the CD.

We’ve been to the first two operas of the season and they were good, but definitely classic operas, one being Madama Butterfly. One of the things they do because operas are a little inaccessible (usually in a different language) is they give a lecture before hand if you get to the show early. Sometimes we don’t have time to get there for that, but a couple of days ago I checked the flyer from Emory which said this lecture would include a professor at Emory who had helped select some of the lyrics (the libretto) from actual Egyptian texts (there is a tie-in with the King Tut exhibit and the Michael Carlos Museum at Emory) when Glass was writing it, and Philip Glass himself. So we definitely were going to go to that lecture because how often do you get to see the composer himself talk about the opera? You know Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, and Puccini aren’t showing up. So that was neat as the two of these guys talked about the background of why Glass picked an obscure pharaoh and filled us in on the story on the 25th anniversary of the opera.

The production itself was not fully staged, with minimal props and no sets. And it is very different from most operas which have convoluted plots and cram lots of action and songs in. The entire first act probably didn’t have more than a paragraph of lyrics and the text of the whole opera would be shorter than this post (unless maybe you include all of the repeated lines, of which there are many). The plot was more symbolized than realized on the stage as Akhnaten rises to the throne, converts his country to the first monotheistic religion, and then falls. I could see how critics might think it was slow or that all of the songs sounded the same and I have to wonder how many people didn’t care for it.

Anyway, I really enjoyed it. The orchestra sounded great and while the high-pitched countertenor voice of the pharaoh was kind of weird, it blended really nicely with his queen Nefertiti’s voice. Two people in Susan’s church choir were in the chorus including one person who went on the Ireland trip with us. So it was neat seeing someone we knew and the chorus was featured pretty prominently and also sounded great.

2 thoughts on “Philip Glass and Akhnaten

  1. Wow, cool. My high school art teacher shared some of her albums with me (1988?), and that’s where I first learned to enjoy Glass. I have never heard any Glass opera, though.

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