When Philip Glass’ Akhnaten first appeared in 1984, the New York Daily News was moved to label Mr. Glass “the Ronald Reagan of composers.
This time around, no one is thinking of Ronald Reagan after experiencing the Glass/Kamensek/McDermott/Pollard/Pay production at the Metropolitan Opera. Instead, the words ”breathtaking”, “hypnotic”, “gorgeous”, “luscious”, “overwhelming”, and “beautiful,” are most likely to be heard.
“Beautiful” is the word which first pops to my mind. I was reminded of Saint Thomas’ definition of the beautiful: “id quod visum placet”, “that which, being seen, pleases.”
Philip Glass’ beautiful opera is just as much a visual experience as a musical one. And in an opera proclaiming the existence of one supreme God, one should remember that beauty constitutes a major part of the energies of God, as the beautiful draws people to him.
So much about Akhnaten is different from the typical opera that another term might help describe the phenomenon. In the 1970s the Term “performance art” was used to describe a whole host of events, which might more accurately have been known as “stunts.”
Because of its beauty, Akhnaten is the first piece of performance art I have seen worthy of the word “art”.
Akhnaten presents what the University of Chicago professor Mircea Eliade called the “illud tempus,” the mysterious, ancient time of origins, the sacred time when things were first created. In this case, the time monotheism invaded Western civilization. The action of the opera, if action is the right word, involves the recitation of this cosmogonic myth, as the actual events are recalled into existence before our eyes, by the Homeric bard of the occasion, Zachary James. The bravura Mr. James, like all bards, unrolls the episodes and occasionally plays one or two of the roles.
The simple plot is accented with elaborate Egyptian rituals of burial, love, devotion, and coronation. The love between the king and his queen is recited as a poem, and then sung. The one true god, Aten, the form of the sun god Ra, dominates the new life of the empire.
Naturally, the old polytheists, now banished, their “holy of holies” destroyed by Akhnaten himself, are not pleased. They eventually lead a crowd to break into the palace of Akhnaten and his Queen Nefertiti, and kill the too-isolated king . The rebels sing in the Akkadian language
Tutankhamun, Akhnaten’s nephew or half-brother, is crowned as the new king, as polytheism is restored. Modern day students tour the Egyptian ruins as a professor lectures them on the times of Akhnaten, known as the “Amarna period”. The professor speaks the text of Frommer’s Guide to Egypt. And Fodor’s Egypt.
All that remain of Akhnaten’s dream are his ghost, the ghost of Nefertiti,and the king’s mother, Queen Tye. The ghosts sing in their own language, as the banished juggling balls of monotheism begin to roll back onto the human stage.
Mr. Glass has the considerable talents of stage director Phelim McDermott, set and projection designer Tom Pye, costume designer Kevin Pollard, and lighting designer Bruno Poet, virtually the same team responsible for the Met’s stunning Cosi Fan Tutti last season. This all-star team works the magic of channeling the long-ago into the here-and-now, as time and space merge and hybridize, resulting in the creative character fusion of ancient Egypt, early twentieth century Britain and contemporary American fashion.
Mr. Glass’ music does not simply accompany the thin horizontal narrative line. Like the ocean’s tide, Mr. Glass’ music swells and deepens as moments move vertically into the depths of religious impulses. The movement on the stage brilliantly realizes Bernard Shaw’s adage, “To draw an audience in, slow things down.” The stage becomes the place of otherworldliness, as juggled balls are offered in tribute to the great orange ball, the symbol of the one true God. Glass’ music actualizes the centuries-old phrase “the music of the spheres”. What the audience hears are the sounds of heavenly worlds in collision, harmonies rubbing against other harmonies to create celestial music.
Glass has acknowledged that his works, from inception, are strongly linked with design and directorial concepts.[vii]The Akhnaten design visualizes salient features of the transformation of society from polytheistic to monotheistic can back again . Ernst Cassirer has observed that “pure monotheism “is always uplifting because the belief in the one and only God makes man aware of his own inner unity: This unity, however, cannot be discovered except as it reveals itself in outward form by virtue of the concrete structures of language and myth, in which it is embodied, and from which it is afterward regained by the progress of logical reflection.”[viii] Historian Jan Swafford noted that minimalism “fled as far as possible from academic serialism to an utter simplicity and transparency of means. Minimalism’s relentless babble and beat rose, among other sources, from pop music.”[ix]
The process of logical reflection finds an objective correlative in the juggling which permeates the production. Juggling makes the logic of the music visibly alive and interactive. It heightens the human beings’ awareness of themselves in space. One man juggles many balls, as one god juggles many creations. Sean Gandini of Gandini Juggling has noted that the first images of juggling occur in Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Ten-member juggling ensemble includes Shane Miclon of Buckfield, Maine, who juggled with his father Michael for years at the Buckfield Oddfellow Theater, where thousands of Mainers were introduced to the New Vaudeville of Benny Rheel in the 1980s, well into the twenty-first century. Shane’s movement from popular busker to fine artist mrrors the transition of Philip Glass from pop composer to Metropolitan Opera composer. The moving of popular arts into fine arts’ venues seems a theme in the work of Phelim McDermott and his Band of Merry Men.
Mr. McDermott takes the relatively simple and common plot – the rise, reign, and fall of a royal hero – and fills it in with all sorts of theatrical wonders, enough to make any Wagnerite green with envy. His counterpart in the pit, conductor Karen Kamensek reminds one of the plate-spinning act in an old vaudeville show. The artist would spin one plate after another on sticks, continuously moving between teetering plates and wobbling sticks, to keep them all spinning until all twelve plates were spinning on all twelve sticks. To conduct Akhnaten with such cool-headedness and brilliant understanding of Mr. Glass’ intentions is to achieve the musical equivalent of master plate spinner. Her grand achievement is no small one.
At the Metropolitan Opera the actual dry historical truth of anthropology takes a back seat to the dazzling poetic truth on stage
Upon the death of the Egyptian king – Amenhotep III – the crown prince sets the nation on a new direction, a monotheistic direction.
For Akhnaten, as for his contemporary, Moses, monotheism has a particular meaning: ”Monotheism is “the recognition of a single supreme being and worship of him alone….He is not just a highly developed spirit arising out of animism, nor just the presiding deity in a council of gods, nor a glorified ancestor, chief, or culture hero. He is the good creator of the world, and eternal, the author of moral obligations, who expects human beings to live by them”[i]
To dramatize his monumental decision, the new king changes his name to Akhnaten. and moves the capitol from Thebes to the new city of Akhaten. The new city of light features open spaces and is dedicated with a ceremonial dance.
The apex of the opera is the Act II finale “Hymn to Aten”. Sung with unworldy restraint and dynamic majesty the brilliant Anthony Roth Costanzo’s Akhnaten proclaims
“Thou sole God
There is no other like thee
Thou didst create the earth
According to thy will
As Akhnaten slowly ascends the staircase to assume his place in the sun, an offstage Chorus responds with King David’s Psalm 104, sung in Hebrew. Glass believes the Hebrew psalm of David reiterates the sentiments of the Akhnaten’s hymn. In fact, Glass believes Psalm 104 to be a translation from Akhnaten’s Egyptian and relates Akhnaten’s ideas “to those of our own time and place.” [ii] The dramatic moment significantly underscores the symbiosis of the time of Akhnaten of Egypt with the time of Moses of the Hebrew people.
Bless the Lord, oh my soul. Oh Lord my God, thou art very great; thou art clothed with honor and majesty
Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain:
Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters: who maketh the clouds his chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind:
Who maketh his angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire:
Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever.
Thou coveredst it with the deep as with a garment: the waters stood above the mountains.
At thy rebuke they fled; at the voice of thy thunder they hasted away.
They go up by the mountains; they go down by the valleys unto the place which thou hast founded for them.
Thou hast set a bound that they may not pass over; that they turn not again to cover the earth.
He sendeth the springs into the valleys, which run among the hills.
They give drink to every beast of the field: the wild asses quench their thirst.
By them shall the fowls of the heaven have their habitation, which sing among the branches.
He watereth the hills from his chambers: the earth is satisfied with the fruit of thy works.
He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth;
And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man’s heart.
The trees of the Lord are full of sap; the cedars of Lebanon, which he hath planted;
Where the birds make their nests: as for the stork, the fir trees are her house.
The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats; and the rocks for the conies.
He appointed the moon for seasons: the sun knoweth his going down.
Thou makest darkness, and it is night: wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth.
The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God.
The sun ariseth, they gather themselves together, and lay them down in their dens.
Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour until the evening.
O Lord, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches.
So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts.
There go the ships: there is that leviathan, whom thou hast made to play therein.
These wait all upon thee; that thou mayest give them their meat in due season.
hat thou givest them they gather: thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good.
Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled: thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust.
Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth.
The glory of the Lord shall endure for ever: the Lord shall rejoice in his works.
He looketh on the earth, and it trembleth: he toucheth the hills, and they smoke.
I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live: I will sing praise to my God while I have my being.
My meditation of him shall be sweet: I will be glad in the Lord.
Let the sinners be consumed out of the earth, and let the wicked be no more. Bless thou the Lord, O my soul. Praise ye the Lord.
Historian William McNeill has noted the significance of this historical moment:
“The intellectual and religious evolution of ancient middle eastern society tended toward ethical and transcendental monotheism. But only the Jews were able consistently to carry the trend to a logical, unambiguous conclusion….Egypt’s religious evolution was more stormy… In the fourteenth century B.C. a clique of reformers and religious radicals arose who argued that the traditional gods of Egypt and other lands were all false. Only Aten, the glorious sun, everywhere the same and everywhere beneficent to man, together with the Pharaoh who, like the sun, was also beneficent and – at least in principle – seemed to the reformers to bear the true marks of divinity. When the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (1379-62 B.C.) came to the throne he espoused these ideas. Renaming himself Akhnaten, he set out to use all the traditional powers of his office to overthrow the old rites and pieties of Egypt. This roused a counter-fanaticism among priests and conservatives, so that after Akhnaten’s death the Atonists faith was persecuted as energetically as it had briefly persecuted the older forms of Egyptian religion”[iii]
The two historic monotheists have spurred famous conjectures.
Sigmund Freud, in his last work, Moses and Monotheism, while noting that in the Biblical account that Moses was raised by the Pharaoh in the Egyptian court, also observed that “the name ‘Moses’ is an Egyptian one, probably of noble origin.” Possibly the monotheism of Moses was derived from that of Akhnaten, or vice versa. “It is still possible that the religion Moses gave to his Jewish people was yet his own, an Egyptian religion though not the Egyptian one. “[iv]
Recently, in Moses and Akhenaten. The Secret History of Egypt at the Time of the Exodus, Ahmed Osman has suggested that beyond mutual influence, Moses and Akhenaten were actually one and the same person![v]
Whatever the case, Glass’ inclusion of Psalm 104 brilliantly acknowledges the concurrence of the two historic champions of monotheism.
Phillip Glass is a premiere “minimalist “ composer. Minimalism “forged a dynamic point of contact between forward-looking classical music and mass-market popular culture – finally on speaking terms again after a long period of almost total isolation. “ The music shows the influence of New wave rock, funk, jazz, and disco, featuring “insistent pulsations and vamp-styled patterns”, in a “populist celebration of rhythm and trance.”[vi]
For those performing Philip Glass’ music, minimal in no way means easy. To perform some of opera’s most challenging music, the Metropolitan Opera has assembled some of the opera world’s most fearless and talented singers. In addition to the aforementioned Mr. Costanzo, Disella Larusdottr presents Akhnaten’s mother Queen Tye with a hint of the Oedipalism which first brought Glass to the ancient story. An occasional touch, or an unusual stage position, or an ambiguous look subtly suggests the work’s core – the idea of Immanuel Velikovsky in Oedipus and Akhnaten that the Oedipus myth originated at the time of Akhnaten. The idea spurred Glass to begin to think of the Akhnaten story as a possible opera.
Presenting the permanent Egyptian Deep State are Richard Bernstein as Aye, Will Liverman as General Horemhab, and Aaron Blake as the High Priest of Amon , the bureaucracy, the military and the clergy respectively, permanent figures who remain in power as pharaohs come and go. When a pharaoh displease them, they lead a coup d etat, as they do against Akhnaten.
Rounding out the stellar court players is J’Nai Bridges as Nefertiti. Her glorious voice, especially in the gorgeous love duet with her Akhnaten, and her ability to handle an elegant flowing train make her presence a highlight of the production. The Love Duet embodies the desert tone and indirect cool passion found in the Old Testament’s Song of Solomon.
In his book God’s Rivals, Gerald R. McDermott reiterates Clement of Alexandria’s belief that God used other religions to prepare the way for Christ. “Their origins are supernatural, not natural; they teach some truth about God; and they are used by God to advance his own plan of redemption.”[x] Likewise, Irenaeus believed that God is in charge of all history and uses the development of the world religions to prepare their adherents to receive greater religious truth.
At the conclusion of the Orthodox Church’s Divine Liturgy, the faithful sing the stichos, a short liturgical hymn which echoes the partial truth revealed to Akhnaten and Moses so long ago, now fulfilled in Christ, the Light of Light:
“We have seen the true light.”
The people have finished what began with the vague promise revealed to Moses and Akhnaten long ago. They have seen the true Light and have been enlightened. They have received the heavenly Spirit and have been brought to heaven. They have found the true faith and have been brought into the saving presence of the undivided Trinity.[xi]
[i] Winifred Corduan. In the Beginning God. A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism. (Nashville, TN: B and H Publishing,2013).
[ii] Glass, p.
[iii] William H. McNeill. A World History. Third Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press,1979), p.67-68.
[iv] Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism., Translated from the German by Katherine Jones. Montevarchi, Italy, Harmakis Editions, 2017.
[v] Ahmen Osman. Moses and Akhenaten. The Secret History of Egypt at the Time of the Exodus, (Rochester, Vermont: Bear and Company, 2001.)
[vi] Ted Gioia. Music: A Subversive History. New York: Basic Books, 2019.
[vii] Philip Glass. Music by Philip Glass. New York: Harper and Row, p. 142.
[viii] Ernst Cassirer. Language and Myth. New York: Dover Publications, 1946.
[ix] Jan Swafford. Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music. New York: Basic Books, 2017.
[x] Gerald R. McDermott. God’s Rivals. Why God Allowed Different Religions. Insights from the Bible and the Early Church., IVP Academic Press, 2007.
[xi] Father :Lawrence Farley. Let Us Attend. A Journey through the Orthodox Divine Liturgy. Ben Lombard, California” Conciliar Press, 2007.
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