Number 6 of my List of Albums that Make Me Happy, is Akhnaten by Philip Glass.
I saw the opera, almost by chance, in London in the spring of 1985. The ENO just happened to be playing it. I also saw Horne and von Stade in La Donna del Lago from the gods at Covent Garden about the same time and the same way. I found the Coliseum and bought a ticket for a great seat in the orchestra for top price, as I recall, £20. I knew who Glass was but hadn’t heard any of his music.
It was like no other opera, no other music, I had ever heard. Some would argue it’s not an opera but that’s what Glass and his collaborators called it and the ENO is an opera company.
It’s the third in his Portrait Series of operas following Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha. It’s musically more approachable than either of these.
There’s no plot, as such. There’s not much action, either. The orchestra plays, the singers sing, much more like a staged oratorio than anything else. Beautiful costumes, great lighting and sets. Interesting staging. A group of wrestlers mimed a struggle in slow motion, far upstage, at one point, while the principals performed downstage.
The character Akhnaten, by the way, is sung by a countertenor. We know he was actually weird looking from statuary. In this context, the sound of Akhnaten’s singing is oddly otherworldly, appropriate for a pharaoh who attempted to transform Egyptian religion. The priesthood and his successor transformed it back, immediately he died.
I must have raved about the performance because I received the cassette album as a gift and I’ve listened to it many times although, I will confess, rarely from beginning to end.
My perception of that performance clouded my understanding of the nature of opera in general.
The consensus is that opera is the synthesis of the various performing arts. There are actors (usually singers) portraying characters so it’s drama, a play if you like. As in a play, all the elements of stage craft can be present; costumes, sets, lighting, technical effects and so forth. There is solo singing and soloists singing in ensembles. There can be choral singing. There is instrumental music which can be accompaniement for the singing but is often also featured alone. There can be ballet or other dancing.
But is opera, then, drama or music or both at the same time?
It’s the composer whose name is attached to the piece. La Traviata by Verdi, not La Traviata by Piave, who wrote the words based upon Dumas’s play. With plays, it’s the author. Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett, Erin Shields.
Yet no one would argue that a recording of an opera, even a live one, is a faithful reproduction of an opera. It’s only the music. It’s the most important thing but without the ancillary elements of the performance, the things that make it opera and not a concert.
There are people who love opera and go to live performances and Silver City Met operas but wouldn’t cross the street to see a concert of opera highlights. ‘Cause, it’s not opera, right?
I’m posting this with just the first act music. If you’re interested there are videos of parts of performances available on YouTube.