Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Philip Glass Series (Part 5 of 8): Completing the Portrait Trilogy

In conjunction with the Philip Glass residency at the University of Virginia from March 31st to April 2nd, I have created this series to highlight the music, history, and impact of this American composer.

For those who missed it: Part 4 - Einstein on the Beach

Although Einstein on the Beach made Philip Glass an overnight sensation, the initial fame didn't result in a radical change in his life.  Glass went back to work as a taxi driver and plumber.  He later recalled an "uncomfortable" experience from this time period:
At that time I was earning a living as a plumber and had gone to install a dishwasher in a loft in Soho.  While working, I suddenly heard a noise and looked up to find Robert Hughes, the art critic of TIME magazine, staring at me in disbelief.  We had met before, and he knew me at sight.
"But you're Philip Glass!  What are you doing here?"
It was obvious that I was installing his dishwasher, and I told him I soon would be finished...
"But you are an artist," he protested.  "I won't permit you to work on my dishwasher!"
I explained that I was an artist, but that I was sometimes a plumber as well, and that he should go away and let me finish my job.
Although Einstein was a huge success, it still left both him and Robert Wilson in debt, $90,000 worth of debt.  For opera buffs, this should come as no surprise.  Opera companies rarely make a profit from productions, and often rely on benefactors to pick up the tab.  However, Glass and Wilson had no benefactors.

So, Glass continued with his plumbing and taxi driving.  He was also still composing, and during the initial tour of Einstein in Europe, he was approached by Hans de Roo, director of the Netherlands Opera.  Hans asked if Glass was interested in writing "a real opera," one that would be performed by a traditional orchestra, and Glass accepted.  They met again in the spring of 1977, and began planning out the work.  It would be based on the life of Mahatma Gandhi during his years in South Africa, and be called Satyagraha, the name Gandhi gave to his nonviolent civil disobedience movement.

Time is utilized in three distinct ways throughout the opera.  The first takes the audience through Gandhi's involvement in the Satyagraha movement from 1893 to 1914.  Secondly, the three acts and their corresponding scenes provide a "dawn-to-night setting" that places all events in a single day (Act I occurs in the morning, Act II in the afternoon, and Act III at night).  Lastly, Glass wanted "to have each act presided over by a historical figure connected to Gandhi," representing the "'three times'—past, present, and future."  These figures would be Leo Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The opera was premiered on September 5th, 1980, and like Einstein, it was a huge success.  "The first day tickets went on sale, a line formed around the theater at 7:30 in the morning."  In the end, all nine of the performances in Holland would sell out.  For Glass, this was a moment of reflection:
Again, I saw an audience filled with young people, many of them obviously completely new to opera... If there are no audiences for new operas, you certainly can't prove it by me.
In the summer of 1979, before the premiere of Satyagraha, Glass had a meeting with Dennis Russell Davies, a rising American conductor.  Davies had been initially sought to conduct Satyagraha, but would be unavailable for the performances.  In spite of this, Davies was interested in conducting the German premiere in Stuttgart.

It was during this meeting that the idea of an operatic trilogy was born.  Specifically, Davies wanted to have the trilogy performed in Stuttgart.

The problem now would be finding a subject for the final opera.  In the end, Glass settled on the Pharaoh Akhenaten (Glass would end up using the spelling "Akhnaten"):
Akhnaten completed the trilogy in many satisfying ways.  First of all, Akhnaten, like Einstein and Gandhi, had changed forever the world into which he was born.  In the case of Akhnaten, it was through the imposition of a radical new state religion upon fifteenth-century BC Egypt.  His idea of a simple, universal deity for all mankind was not warmly accepted by his people at the time (to say the least), and his brief seventeen-year reign... ended when both he and his religion were overthrown... but the main point for me was that Akhnaten had changed his (and our) world through the force of his ideas and not through the force of arms.
Creating a storyline for the opera would prove to be a challenge, since certain details of Akhnaten's life have remained a mystery to historians.  For Glass, this would serve as a point for creativity:
Back in New York, I explained my idea to Shalom [Goldman, a specialist in the ancient Near East who was helping with the libretto]: an opera about Akhnaten based upon fragments with the missing bits intact, as if it were.  His face lit up, and at the end he exclaimed, "Ah!  Singing archaeology!"
The final result was three acts following the "rise, reign, and fall of Akhnaten in a series of tableaus," concluding with an Epilogue set in the present.

The premiere ended up being quite the occasion:
When the curtain came down, I joined the company on stage with Achim [Freyer, the stage director], his wife and Dennis Russell Davies.  The audience was cheering and booing.  This went on for quite some time.  I think they actually were booing and cheering at each other, and I distinctly saw one fellow vigorously clapping and loudly booing at the same time.  Dennis and Achim seemed very pleased with the uproar.  When I pointed out the opposition in the audience, Dennis smiled broadly and said to me (we were still taking our bows on the stage), "Yeah, it's kind of like a sport over here."
Achim wagged his finger approvingly at the boos and said solemnly, "Very important!"
And in fact, everyone did look like they were having a wonderful time.
Along with the controversy, Glass definitely had something else to be proud of: he was finally making money off of his own music.

Part 6 - Film, Songs of Liquid Days, and Ravi Shankar


  1. This series has been so informative, interesting and I have truly enjoyed the background on Philip Glass! Thank you!

  2. Again, the history lesson you provide us - is both introspective and gives great insight into a wonderful artist. Waiting for next installment.