The Portrait Trilogy of operas by Philip Glass
December 21, 2017 12:09 PM   Subscribe

Einstein on the Beach, first performed in 1976, is the first of Philip Glass's "Portrait Trilogy," followed by Satyagraha (1980), loosely based on the life of Mahatma Gandhi and sung in Sanskrit, and Akhnaten (1984), based on the life and religious convictions of the pharaoh Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) and sung in the original languages of the source material. Where Einstein was revolutionary for its music and its form, Satyagraha and Akhnaten were scaled down and more traditional operas due to performance and financial necessities, allowing them to become repertory operas since their premieres. Together, the trio have become a sort of modern 'Ring' Cycle. More thoughts on and samples from the operas below.

In 1973, a friend of Christopher Knowles's parents gave an audiotape he made to Robert Wilson, the avant-garde theatre director and playwright. That same year, Wilson and Philip Glass met after Glass saw show of Bob's called The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, a silent piece that lasted 12 hours. The two hit it off and talked about collaborating on a piece. As recalled by Philip,
When we started talking about a subject, I suggested Gandhi, but Bob wasn't that interested. He countered with Hitler, which I didn't want to do. Then he said, what about Einstein? That was it: I had been very taken with Einstein, he was really a popular hero in the 1940s.

The opera isn't a narrative about Einstein's life. What connected Bob and I was how we thought about time and space in the theatre. We worked first with the time – four hours – and how we were going to divide it up. Then we thought about the images, and then the staging. I discovered that Bob thinks with a pencil and paper; everything emerged as drawings. I composed music to these, and then Bob began staging it.
Glass noted that the score was "a tippping point" in his career, and the culmination of about a decade of work, going back to a collaboration with Ravi Shankar in 1964. Pieces from the past were falling into place, for both Glass and Wilson, with Einstein. The libretto (PDF) was composed, in part, of Knowles’s poems.

Lucinda Childs was the third mastermind, bringing choreographing and dancing in the initial performances, which helped her career after the end of the Judson Dance Theater, a major part of the 60s New York arts scene that revolutionized dance. Childs met Wilson when she was working on pieces she calls her "Works in Silence," in which the only sound is made by the dancers, as experienced in Radial Courses, performed there on December 16, 2009, at the Bessie Schönberg Dance Theater, Sarah Lawrence College.
On the same day that he met her, the theater auteur Robert Wilson invited Childs to create the primary speaking role and to choreograph a marathon solo in his Einstein on the Beach (1976). Now recognized as one of the defining works of theater in the twentieth century, Einstein not only made Childs a fixture of the international avant-garde but also introduced her to that work’s composer, Philip Glass.

When Glass met Childs, his first thought was to ask, “What does she need me for?” It seemed to Glass that Childs’s work—so consonant with his own in their shared repeating structures—was already complete in itself. But after Einstein, Glass became convinced that they should continue to create together and he approached Childs with the idea of collaborating on the full-evening DANCE (a quick look back with Childs and Glass in 2011; previously). In approaching the music Glass wrote for her, Childs developed the method she would use in all her future work: She carefully analyzed its structure and created a parallel choreographic pattern that would, she says, “overlap” the score so that dance “plays with the music—on top of it, underneath it, around it.”
"Einstein" was commissioned by Michel Guy and the Avignon Festival, where its first five performances were presented in 1976. From there, the performance went on a six-city European tour, before arriving at the Metropolitan Opera House, which Wilson and Glass had merely rented the 3,800-seat house for two Sunday nights, when the theater would normally have been dark. The shows were sold out.

But given the scale of the production, it was expensive and complicated to reproduce. In 1984, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) mounted the opera, and BAM produced the documentary Einstein on the Beach: The Changing Face of Opera, which was the first time that any part of the opera was recorded. Wilson, Glass and Childs came back together for another revival in 1992, when Philip Glass sat for an interview to discuss how the performance had and had not changed, his work with Ravi Shankar, and his love of opera. Two decades later, the mastermind trio came back together to re-stage the performance (previously), and the entire performance was recorded in full (YouTube playlist), courtesy of Culturebox on FranceTV (previously).

Such complexity has lead to an international symposium to delve deeply into the construction, structure, and impact of Einstein on the Beach. Here's one pieces from the symposium: Intuition and Algorithm in Einstein on the Beach. If you wonder how this compares to "traidtional" operas, barczablog has you covered. If you'd prefer brief factoids, here you go. For more musings from the minds behind the opera, here's Philip Glass and Lucinda Childs discussing Einstein on the Beach in 2011, with Mark Swed, music critic for the Los Angeles Times, moderating. Read and hear also, NPR interview with Philip Glass, Robert Wilson and Lucinda Childs in 2013.

The second opera in the portrait trilogy is Satyagraha, which focused on Gandhi's time in South Africa. Philip Glass talked about the origin of the opera in 2008, noting that he saw archival footage* of the Great Salt March in the late 1960s, thanks to an owner of a rug shop in India, which inspired Glass to prepare a story of Gandhi's rise in South Africa. (* It's unclear what footage Glass saw, but that's one from 1930 on YouTube; see also: from the archives of Doordarshan, India's National Broadcaster, a presentation on India's struggle for freedom - The Great Salt March of Mahatma Gandhi part 1, part 2)

The opera was commissioned by the city of Rotterdam, Netherlands, and first performed in 1980, by the Netherlands Opera. Structured in three acts, each relating to a different figure in Gandhi's life, with MLK Jr. representing the continuation of Gandhi's teachings:

I. (Leo) Tolstoy; Act 1 Scene 1: The Kuru Field of Justice (opening) and second excerpt; Scene 3: The Vow (excerpt)
II. (Rabindranath) Tagore; Act 2 Scene 1: Confrontation and Rescue
III. (Martin Luther) King (Jr.); Act 3 Scene 3: Evening Song

[Links: (connections between Gandhi and others) original performance audio from 1980; video snippets of performances]

Though sung in Sanskrit and originally performed in 1980 without any translated text, it has been performed with translations in superscript, and you can read the libretto in English (PDF). The title refers to Gandhi's concept of non-violent resistance to injustice, Satyagraha, and the text, from the Bhagavad Gita, is available in various translations online. From the view of AllMusic reviewer Brian Olewnick,
It's a far more traditional work in several respects: aside from Michael Riesman's electric keyboards, Satyagraha is scored for standard orchestra, and the voices are grouped much as found in European opera, with arias, duos, trios, and quartets. The overall sound is softer and less strident than in Einstein, with material that is more overtly melodic, though certainly an audience used to Verdi would still be baffled by the extreme repetitive aspect, not to mention a librtto entirely in Sanskrit.
The third portrait opera was performed in Egyptian, Arcadian, Hebrew, and language of the audience, and you can read the libretto in English on Scribd. Philip Glass’ “Akhnaten” is the un-“Aida,” according to Mark Swed, L.A Times' Music Critic, as written in 2016.
Verdi and Glass both re-imagined an ancient Egypt suited to the composers’ own times. But whereas Verdi relies on the great 19th century Italian opera themes of forbidden love and the like to make the exotic realm of Pharaohs and gods knowable, Glass operates on the late 20th century perspective of history as unknowable.
Two productions of the opera premiere almost simultaneously, at the Stuttgart Opera and the Houston Grand Opera, in 1984. Their dramatically different interpretations of the work make for a fascinating contrast in American and European theatrical values. Akhnaten represented the third of the formative people profiled in opera by Glass, representing the focus on religion, where Gandhi represented politics and Einstein was tied to science.

Two productions of the opera premiere almost simultaneously, at the Stuttgart Opera and the Houston Grand Opera. Their dramatically different interpretations of the work make for a fascinating contrast in American and European theatrical values.
As in the previous two works, Glass doesn't feel remotely compelled to communicate his story with any lucidity. It is sung primarily in Ancient Egyptian without subtitles, unfolding in long tableaux with the dramatic pace of a darkening twilight sky. For example, in the first act 'coronation' scene, a naked Akhnaten slowly descends a staircase and is dressed in a golden robe - this takes a full twenty minutes. Later on, he sings a love duet with Queen Nefertiti - it takes them ten minutes to do nothing other than walk from either side of the stage, loop their sheer red robes around each other and exit again. Everything is ritualised, close to stasis.

Akhnaten was also a three-act opera, charting the life and history of the pharaoh.

I. Act 1: Year 1 of Akhnaten's Reign. Thebes; Scene 1: Funeral of Amenhotep III; Scene 3: The Window of Appearances
II. Act 2: Year 5 to 15. Thebes and Akhnaten; Scene 1: The Temple; Scene 2: Akhnaten and Nefertiti, and Scene 4: Hymn
III. Act 3: Year 17 and the present. Akhetaten

[Links: Acts = full audio recording of acts, by The Stuttgart State Opera; Act titles = resources referencing those periods of Akhnaten's history; Scenes = video snippets of performances]

Brian Olewnick was less impressed by this composition, writing
here there is little if anything that connotes the Egyptian short, presumably, of the stagecraft in a live performance. The music by this time had taken on the "by the yard" feel of much of his work in the mid-'80s and beyond, possibly a result of simply having too many coals in the fire. Though still capable of creating the odd enchanting melody or haunting passage, most of the music sounds like a pallid rehash of previous works.... The scattered lovely moments, as well as its vaunted place in his oeuvre, make this worth hearing, but it suffers greatly compared to its companions in the trilogy.
Though other listeners disagree on the criticism.

Since Akhnaten, Glass has been prolific, with some opera tallies going up to 24, including additional "portraits" of characters he profoundly admires, including Galileo, Kepler, Columbus, Vasco da Gama, and Walt Disney.
posted by filthy light thief (23 comments total) 91 users marked this as a favorite

Well if I didn't already adore you ftl, I would now.

Flagged as fantastic!
posted by elsietheeel at 12:13 PM on December 21, 2017

posted by Fizz at 12:14 PM on December 21, 2017

It could be very fresh and clean.
posted by cyanistes at 12:19 PM on December 21, 2017 [10 favorites]

Bonus links: Musings on Satyagraha at Philosophy Now -- Grant Bartley focuses on the forces of history through Philip Glass’s opera about Gandhi

Carnation by Lucinda Childs, 1964

Interview with Robert Wilson, 1980

A short video for a photojournalism class, trying to capture Christopher Knowles "In A Word" gallery at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia; and Knowles on UBU
posted by filthy light thief at 12:24 PM on December 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

EotB and its iterations and emanations had such a profound effect on impressionable just-minted NYC teen me; it felt both elemental/ancient and yet so like the future. (But Meredith Monk had more laughing.)
Thanks for this ultramassive post - enough to tide me over into the new year...
posted by progosk at 12:46 PM on December 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Wow. Amazing post!

In college for a class assignment I once gave a talk to a class of classical opera students about "Einstein on the Beach" and the work of Glass and Wilson.

At one point I noted something I've always found interesting: these live stage productions using Glass's music often lend themselves to slow motion stagings. (Particularly from Wilson, who'd been using slow motion stage movements in his work for years before the two worked together.) By contrast, the most famous use of Glass's music on film instead works in sped-up, time lapse motion - Koyaanisqatsi.
posted by dnash at 12:50 PM on December 21, 2017

(I just had the chance of seeing a new production of R.Wilson&H.Müller's Hamletmachine the other night. I didn't remember it getting a chuckle out of me originally.)
posted by progosk at 12:53 PM on December 21, 2017

One of my favorite anythings of all time: Philip Glass (accompanied by the People's Mic) reading the final lines of "Satyagraha" at an OWS protest at Lincoln Center. Makes me sob every time.
posted by unknowncommand at 1:19 PM on December 21, 2017 [5 favorites]

Fervent osculation!
posted by rlk at 1:34 PM on December 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

According to The New York Times, The Metropolitan Opera is doing Akhnaten in 2019.

I plan to see it.
posted by SansPoint at 1:44 PM on December 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm a big Glass fan, and Einstein on the Beach was my staple, but after a bit I started thinking that Glass was a better composer than performer of his own music. Also, minimalism stretched over hours and hours became a little too rich for me.
So, (although I don't want to disrupt this thread), I'd like to give a shout-out to my all-time favourite Glass performers, the Brazilian group Uakti who certainly deserve a separate post (unless they already have one).
The Aguas da Amazonia composition is played by glass marimbas, sewage-pipe organs, flip-flops and who-knows-what else, and in combination with Glass' mathematical music the effect is amazing.

(sorry for the derail)
posted by Laotic at 1:57 PM on December 21, 2017 [4 favorites]

Wonderful post! I shall have to peruse those links later. Philip Glass & Lucinda Childs visited here a few weeks ago, and held, among several other things, a rather interesting Q&A session—it was fun seeing them reminisce the olden days.

Einstein on the Beach remains my favourite opera. I was fortunate enough to see Glass & the Ensemble perform Music in Twelve Parts (another favourite) in an old shipyard in Elsinore last year.
posted by bouvin at 2:03 PM on December 21, 2017

Laotic: ... the Brazilian group Uakti who certainly deserve a separate post (unless they already have one)

Nope, that's the 10th mention of them in comments, but no post to them, which would be great to see.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:04 PM on December 21, 2017

I would have to agree with Laotic's observation—one of the concerts I attended was the Etudes, and while Glass' performance was not bad, it was certainly not up to the level of the other pianists. Still, he is eighty, so I'll happily cut him some slack, and a composer can play their own music any way they damn well please. In the Q&A, he noted that he enjoyed that his music is being taken up by quite a few musicians these days, because he hears new things in their interpretations of his work.

(Uakti's version is indeed beautiful).
posted by bouvin at 2:10 PM on December 21, 2017

(I'm still wondering about what happened to the The Earth Moves Kickstarter).
posted by bouvin at 2:16 PM on December 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

For an Eggman.
posted by jferg at 2:28 PM on December 21, 2017

Seeing Satyagraha at the Metropolitan Opera was a key part of my shift towards opera obsessiveness (from opera being a minor thing, and then only mostly modern works). I absolutely loved it. I had never seen anything on stage like it before, and it convinced me to really start working to see what other opera I could see in NYC, and how much of it I wanted to see. Within a few months the answer to the latter became "as much as I was able to."

Last year I was able to go down to see a Los Angeles Opera performance of Akhnaten. Trailer (from when it premiered at English National Opera; this is the McDermott production that is supposed to come to the Met in 2019-20). The night I went Conductor Matthew Aucoin (a composer himself) led a pre-opera talk with Philip Glass. From my tweets at the time:

Glass spoke about Beckett & Genet and realizing their works were written so that the audience completed the transaction. Glass: "And when I perform music, even my own music, I realize I'm adjusting it, and thus don't get upset when others do similarly." Aucoin replies "That's very reassuring, seeing that you're about to hear me conduct Akhnaten"

Glass also said the the thread through this trilogy was social change through nonviolent means. Science, politics, then religion. The fourth would be the press, but Glass laughed nervously when asked by Aucoin about trying to write that one.

The performances and production were really quite spectacular, though not without issues.

Two bonus reaction tweets:
#Akhnaten puts on his pants the same as everyone else, lowered into them 2 legs at a time after being flipped head over heels by 8 jugglers (11/17/16)

McDermott's production of #Akhnaten asks what if social/religious change but with aggressive juggling (11/17/16)
posted by mountmccabe at 2:54 PM on December 21, 2017 [5 favorites]

mountmccabe: Did you get to see The Exterminating Angel? I’m very new to opera, but I adored it. Curious what an actual opera fan thought, even one more biased towards modern works.
posted by SansPoint at 3:48 PM on December 21, 2017

I no longer live in NYC; I considered making the trip to see it in the house but make it so I opted for the the Live in HD broadcast.

I had enjoyed hearing the work from Salzburg and London, but I really loved being able to see it. I was drawn in right away, with the opera starting before curtain and the doubled introductions (being both disorienting and a second chance at orienting us). There was a lot to like from the score, and I quite like the vocal writing, and how Adès has differentiated the characters. And I really take to heart what I've heard from the singers: that while the vocal lines may seem difficult, once you see how they fit into the music they are very natural; they could not be anything else.

I really love a lot of Adès' other works, and I'm convinced that Powder Her Face is a work of absolute genius, so I'm definitely coming at this as a fan.

I don't know the film (yet) so my take was based on the opera as a thing itself, not considering how true of an adaptation it was or anything like that.
posted by mountmccabe at 4:17 PM on December 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

I went to Toronto to see the latest (and possibly last) production of EOTB a few years ago. It was astounding. I'm not even sure I breathed for the 4.5+ hours it ran.

There was a livestream of a performance of EOTB that was captured and torrented in HD and I have it and I watch it regularly. It's such an outstanding, odd, evocative supermarket, and there were all these aisles. And there were all these and bathing caps that you could buy which had these kind of Fourth of July plumes on them. They were red and yellow and blue. I wasn't tempted to buy one but I was reminded of the fact that I had been avoiding the beach.
posted by hippybear at 8:14 PM on December 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

I saw Akhnaten last year, not really knowing anything about it in advance (I am a season subscriber to the LA Opera so I just go to whatever they're putting on throughout the year) and it enchanted me.

The production was visually stunning, the music was hypnotic, and the experience as a whole broadened my love of opera, which at that point consisted of deep, nostalgic affection for the traditional repertoire (a side effect of accompanying my grandmother to many operas as a kid).

At one point, Akhnetan is disrobed by his mysterious attendants and he descends a magnificent staircase, singing in his unearthly soprano all the while, completely and absolutely nude. I was agog (not least because up to that point, I had kind of assumed that the performer singing in that register was female - that's how cheap my seats are).
posted by Aubergine at 8:46 AM on December 22, 2017 [4 favorites]

(I'm still wondering about what happened to the The Earth Moves Kickstarter)

Yeah, me too. I didn't sink a huge amount into this, but I really wanted to see it. I am exceptionally forgiving of a Kickstarter creator having difficulties, but silence for a year really pisses me off. If nothing else, surely my pledge entitles me to an explanation.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 11:24 AM on December 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

How to play piano like Philip Glass.
posted by mecran01 at 9:35 PM on December 24, 2017

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