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Glass discusses opera at MFA

Philip Glass, lecturing at the Museum of Fine Arts, December 4.

A well-filled auditorium at the Museum of Fine Arts last Wednesday heard composer Philip Glass comment on his operas, Akhnaten in particular. The theme of the latter being Egyptian, it was left to the Museum's curator for Egyptian art to introduce Glass -- as the main composer since Verdi to gather inspiration around the Nile.

The evening did not quite come up to expectations. Contact with Akhnaten's actual performance consisted of some ten slides and no more than a few minutes of taped music, and Glass's high-speed oral presentation left something to be desired, too. Still, there was a lot to be gained from listening to Glass who, after all, is one of today's most important composers, one, moreover, in a pivotal position on the verge of classical, pop and jazz.

Known to the movie-going public through scores such as Koyaanisqatsi and more recently Mishima, Glass still derives most of his reputation from three major operas. The first (and, many would say, best) of these, the 1976 Einstein on the Beach, was a co-production with Robert (CIVIL WarS) Wilson. Glass explained that he did not initially think of Einstein as an opera; its classification as such derived from the fact that its large scale made it fit only in opera houses.

Satyagraha, about the young Gandhi, followed in 1980, and at the request of the director of the Stuttgart opera Glass then undertook to work on a piece to complete the trilogy. ("Germans like that," he said.) His attention was drawn to Akhenaten by a book of speculator Velikovsky, identifying the Egyptian pharaoh as the source of the Oedipus legend, as well as by Freud's work on monotheism. Akhenaten, it will (or will not) be recalled, temporarily replaced the Egyptian pantheon with a single deity, manifesting itself in the disk of the Sun.

Glass's attitude toward history in Akhnaten is somewhat ambiguous. The above references do not suggest a particularly positivist approach to the subject, and his intention to substantiate Freud's claim that Akhnaten was "the first individual in history" seems at odds with the unfortunate circumstance that the king's personality is shrouded by the clouds of the past. Yet Glass stated he "didn't want to invent things." To achieve the utmost in authenticity, he even decided to use original Egyptian, Akkadian and Hebrew texts for the libretto (just like Satyagraha has Sanskrit). As for the pronunciation of these languages, "there was hardly anybody to complain about it." Only Akhenaten's Hymn to the Sun was sung in English.

The three acts of Akhnaten (Rise, Reign and Fall) each consist of separate fragments. Thus, Glass intends to mimic the corresponding museum experience; watching his opera is like "seeing archeology." The "critical choice" in the composition was that of making the protagonist a countertenor, halfway between his mother (a soprano) and his wife Nefertiti (an alto).

As for the music, Glass did not intend to "sound Egyptian" -- the large size of his troupe, for one thing, being in obvious contradiction with the presumably modest volume produced in ancient Egyptian music. Still, it had to be "a bit exotic." As always with Glass, the basis consists of repetitive, cyclic structures, the stock in trade of his Minimalist style. His instrumentation in Akhnaten emphasizes the lower strings, brass and percussion. This gives a sense of tragedy to the work, in contrast to the "apocalyptic, high energy" Einstein on the Beach and the "lyrical" Satyagraha.

Having played down the influence of Wagner, Glass finally left for the American Repertory Theatre to attend a rehearsal for his chamber opera The Juniper Tree, which will open this weekend. He described it as a play "not for children." We shall see.

Michiel Bos->