The following piece was inspired by a viewing of a live telecast from the first run at the Metropolitan Opera in New York of Philip Glass’ opera, Akhnaten. The performance was originally televised live on the 23rd of November 2019. It was reissued for free via the Metropolitan Opera’s website for one day on the 20th of June 2020, and viewed by the author the following day. All information and references, unless otherwise stated, are derived from this performance and the accompanying commentary and interviews. It is available from the Metropolitan Opera’s archives.
Introduction to the Work
Akhnaten, which was composed in 1984, centres on the ascension and overthrow of the eponymous Egyptian emperor, with a final commentary in the form of a history lesson in current times. The subject matter is itself typical of the form, as the lives of rulers often provide good scope for operatic adaptation. However, its treatment by the composer, Philip Glass, who uses highly repetitive structures and unusual voice and instrumental combinations, and the director, Phelim McDermott, who adds a juggling troupe to reinforce what is happening on stage and in the pit, combine to create an interesting and unusual production of this opera, however not one without its problems.
Minimalism in the Opera
As the musical score of the opera is constructed from minimalist principles, this has impacted a myriad of aspects within the work. Most notable among these is the libretto1, written by the composer in association with Shalom Goldman, Robert Israel, Richard Riddell and Jerome Robbins. Normally in minimalist operas, the music is built around small groups of notes which are repeated continuously over long periods, and the libretto similarly uses repetition to reinforce both the words and the musical manipulation going on. However in Akhnaten, much of the repetition is based on singing monosyllables like ‘Aa’ or ‘Ma’, lending an almost instrumental quality to this style of writing, which is most prominent when Akhnaten throws out the old religion. Yet even more distinguishing is the fact that only Akhnaten’s prayer to the sun is sung in English. These recitations (spoken passages declaimed according to the score notated by Glass) are carried out by the ghost of Amenhotep III, who towards the end switches guises to become a history teacher from modern times. Each of these recitations, especially the first (the incantation for his own funeral) and the third (Akhenaten’s decree of a new city), hinge on the repetition of phrases. Notable examples include, ‘Open are the double doors of the horizon’, and ‘we will not build it in the north … we will not build it in the east’ as he decrees where he will build – or not build – the city.
Apart from the libretto, the minimalist processes of the music also have radical repercussions for the operas staging. Since much longer periods of time are needed for the music to unfold, the action is forced to proceed at a much slower pace than would be expected of an opera from the standard repertory. This means that not only are there far longer episodes where there is no singing going on, but these orchestral passages must be filled by much slower action on stage. This requires
concentration on the part of the audience to remain engaged with the work. As such, it is understandable if some interpret the “action” as monotonous and find it difficult to remain focused on the unfolding opera.
While actively following the opera may prove to be a challenge, there are some aids; the story is inherently dramatic, a fact aided by its historicity. It should also be noted that the three acts are subdivided into scenes, each of which have titles to help propel forward the action and orientate the audience as to what is actually happening. Yet, even with these forms in place, the work is still in danger of “dragging”, especially in less dramatically progressive scenes such as the Epilogue. However, despite this, Akhnaten belongs to only a handful of minimalist operas whose use of recitation as a tool to link scenes and articulate the thoughts of characters is nonetheless unique and begs for further exploration.
The idea of incorporating juggling in this production of Akhnaten was that of the director, Phelim McDermott, who saw the similarities between the action of juggling and the repetitive nature of Glass’ musical constructions. Glass was in favour of the idea and the inclusion of the troupe of jugglers, who play prominent roles in each act (including mirroring the work of the reciter, Amenhotep III) reinforcing the way the composer develops his musical material. One of the greatest claims to Akhnaten’s uniqueness is the use of the juggling troupe to perform the dramatic role normally ascribed to choruses. As touched on previously, examples of these include depictions of Akhnaten’s overthrow of the old religion and his construction of the new city to the sun god Aten. In the former, the jugglers use pinions, forming an arc in front of the stage as the High Priest of Amon, the General Horemhab and Nefertiti’s father Aye (a trio emblematic of the old religion) are surrounded. As Akhnaten joins the jugglers, they adopt miming patterns suggestive of the firing of arrows. However, in the latter case, the ghost of Amenhotep III (after he recites Akhnaten’s declaration of the construction of the new city) joins the jugglers as a line is formed and the jugglers move up and down the stage, emblematic of the building process. As the jugglers move offstage one by one, they return with larger balls until there is eventually only one very large juggling ball on stage being supported by all of the jugglers. This single juggling ball representative of the sun becomes the focus of Akhnaten’s prayer at the end of the second act.
One of the most powerful uses of the juggling troupe is the culmination of the opera, in which Akhnaten is overthrown by his father-in-law Aye, the General Horemhab and the High Priest of Amon. As the three rebels enter, the troupe takes on the role of the crowd; at the point of Akhnaten’s death, the juggling balls are left to fall to the ground. The jugglers retrieve them, only to let them fall again. As they exit and the modern history lesson takes place on the upper levels of the stage, a group of students imitate juggling while the teacher speaks – without the success of the troupe. Finally, when the spirits of Akhnaten, Nefertiti, and Queen Tye return in the Epilogue, the jugglers are left crawling across stage, occasionally flicking the dropped balls as they move slowly across. Thus, not only do the jugglers mirror the action of the stage, they also provide another layer of commentary on the action, particularly in the different treatments in the opera proper (in ancient Egypt) and the history lesson. While in the former it is at times almost a weapon of overthrow, in contemporary times it becomes a source of amusement and distraction from events of the past. This represents a major development in the operatic sphere, as it opens up a whole range of possibilities
for modes of expression that have historically been restricted to the realm of the chorus. McDermott retains the chorus while adding the juggling troupe, giving Glass’ opera the best of both worlds.
Voice Types and Instruments
There are two major differences between Akhnaten and the standard repertoire with regards to instrumentation, both of which work in tandem. The first is the casting of the title role as a countertenor2, while the second relates to the orchestration. The countertenor voice is normally not regarded as a ‘natural’ male voice type (these being the tenor, baritone and bass), and is not produced by ordinary vocalisation. The ensembles - including Akhnaten, his wife Nefertiti and his mother Tye - consist of three voices no more than an octave apart, but very different in timbre3. Tye, as the dramatic soprano sits the highest, and the role is particularly demanding, leaving little opportunity for the voice to relax on stage. Nefertiti is however a mezzo-soprano whose range roughly corresponds to that of her countertenor husband. This has implications for the work itself, especially in the longest duet in which the two declare their steadfast love for each other after Akhnaten has discarded the old belief systems. Particularly prominent in this duet is a high repeated unison E₅4 (relatively easy for mezzos but at the top of the countertenor range) from both Akhnaten and Nefertiti. The female voice is natural and thus lends itself to a wider vibrato than the male countertenor voice, resulting in slight differences in pitch frequency between the two notes. The fact that they are so close together heightens their difference to the listener’s ear, and the sounds are perceived as almost discordant.
The second major difference between Akhnaten and the standard repertoire is the instrumentation, particularly the fact that the orchestra does not feature any violins. In a standard opera orchestra (like the standard symphony orchestra) there is a large body of violins normally split into ‘first’ and ‘second’ consisting of approximately twelve and ten players each. In Akhnaten, the string section is comprised solely of violas, cellos and double basses. The origins of this scoring lie in the size of the orchestra pit available for the premiere, in which Glass decided to remove the violins in the interest of space, as opposed to any real musical decision. And yet, the removal of the violins and the prominence of the countertenor voice both contribute to a less powerful overall sound. This is emphasised when considering the upper registers of the ensemble as a whole, as it impacts decisions made in orchestration (deciding which instruments play, or which voices sing, to what music).
One such example is the use of a solo trombone that accompanies Amenhotep III’s spoken proclamation of love between Akhnaten and Nefertiti. Apparent spaces exist in this trombone line which seem to suggest that the part has not been split over two instruments (and the spaces are the soloist’s breaths). This is also the only instance in the piece where a solo trombone appears representing honest love. Yet, there is no room to appreciate that fact. While it is true that this is the only open declaration of love by Akhnaten and Nefertiti, and that the solo trombone only plays here,
that is not enough to link the two and find a dramatic element within the music. This is due to the fact that the canvas Glass is working on is based solely on repetitive, arguably a-melodic structures. As such, the dramatic power of this choice of orchestration is not equal to a well-defined melody with a character that is easily identifiable and unique. Thus, the uncertainty created, combined with the fact that the solo trombone passage is very short, nullify any apparent dramatic meaning in the orchestration. The same is true for the final appearance of the spirits, accompanied by staccato muted brass; this is their only appearance, and the non-standard approach to thematic ideas, in this case coupled with the fact that they appear so late in the work, primarily leave a sense of incongruity.
It is difficult to foretell whether Akhnaten adds anything new to the operatic repertoire given how much each of the artistic decisions resulting in this production have stemmed from the construction of the music. As such, it may be difficult to translate some of these techniques – the juggling troupe, the instrumentation, the orchestration – into musical styles outside of minimalism. Akhnaten is nonetheless a score and an opera that invites revisiting and will likely profit from not just further performances, but possibly even further productions. Like many recent operas, it asks interesting questions of what opera actually means to people. Akhnaten is a chance for newcomers to the form to have many of their assumptions, stereotypes and prejudices questioned, and a chance for seasoned operagoers to think more critically about what actually constitutes one of the most celebrated forms of Western cultural expression.
1 the text of an opera.
2 The countertenor is a male voice type whose range roughly corresponds to the lowest female voice type.
3 Timbre, or tone colour, is the perceived sound quality of a musical sound, note or tone. Essentially, it is the property which allows us to tell different instruments apart like for example a trumpet from a violin.
4 A major tenth above middle C, roughly 660Hz.
︎Stephen is a second-year medical student who is growing increasingly sure that he merely slipped through UNSW's administrative cracks after an imaginary application to a UK music conservatory bounced back across the globe and into a different faculty.︎