In the late 19th century, archaeologists working on the banks of the Nile made a remarkable discovery: some four hundred fragments of letters addressed to a pharaoh named Akhnaten. The significance of the find was unmistakable, but who was this mysterious pharaoh? Unlike other Egyptian leaders, whose towering pyramids, richly decorated tombs, and exquisite temples left an indelible mark on Egypt’s landscape, Akhnaten’s reign was cloaked in mystery. And as archaeologists dug into his legacy, they unearthed a series of religious and social reforms so bold, so counter to ancient Egyptian traditions, that his successors felt compelled to erase all traces of this rebellious leader’s reign.

This season, Philip Glass’s landmark opera Akhnaten receives its Metropolitan Opera premiere in an astonishing new production by Phelim McDermott. A mesmerizing mix of ancient imagery and modern stage spectacle, McDermott’s production is deeply influenced by Egyptian art and artifacts, yet it makes no claim to authentically represent Aknhaten’s life. Instead, McDermott says, the production attempts to “create a mythical, dreamlike version of ancient Egypt,” one that “communicates what it was like for people in the early 20th century to rediscover this ancient world.” Star countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo agrees. “This production offers us a view of Egypt like it would have been imagined in 1922, when English explorers found Tutankhamun’s tomb,” he explains. “It’s a representation of fantasies about ancient Egypt, mixed with images inspired by real ancient artifacts. So what you see is a creative depiction of history.”

This guide takes the idea of a “creative depiction of history” as its jumping-off point, inviting teachers and students alike to ask: How do we construct narratives about the distant past? What can modern art teach us about the ancient world? And what can archaeological discoveries teach us about the modern age? The materials on the following pages include an introduction to Philip Glass’s musical language, a historical overview of Akhnaten’s life and reign, and classroom activities that will bring the opera’s music and story to life. By delving into Akhnaten’s music, drama, and design, this guide will forge interdisciplinary classroom connections, inspire critical thinking, and help students excavate the ancient world behind Glass’s timeless work.

Included in the 2019-20 season of HD Live in Schools.

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