Plot & Creation: Akhnaten
An opera in three acts, sung in Ancient Egyptian, Akkadian, Hebrew, and English
Music by Philip Glass
Libretto by Philip Glass, in association with Shalom Goldman, Robert Israel, Richard Riddell, and Jerome Robbins
Ancient texts collected and compiled by Philip Glass, Shalom Goldman, Robert Israel, Richard Riddell, and Jerome Robbins
When Philip Glass decided to write an opera about the pharaoh Akhnaten, he faced an unusual creative challenge: How do you write an opera about a historical figure when almost all record of that person’s life has disappeared? In contrast to the well-documented subjects of Glass’s previous operas, Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi, Akhnaten—today more commonly referred to as “Akhenaten”—is known to modern archaeologists only through a small, fragmentary collection of ancient artifacts. In fact, this scarcity of archaeological evidence was partly intentional: In the years following Akhnaten’s death, his successors, scandalized and outraged by the pharaoh’s religious reforms, had systematically destroyed the monuments of Akhnaten’s reign. Add to this the inevitable ravages of three and a half millennia, and it is no wonder that archaeologists have pieced together only a spotty record of the pharaoh’s life. Yet rather than viewing this fragmentary record as an impediment to understanding Akhnaten’s story, Glass viewed it as a vital part of the story—a story encompassing not merely the 17 years of Akhnaten’s reign but also the 3,500 years that have since elapsed.
Working closely with Shalom Goldman, an expert on ancient religions of the Middle East, Glass set about piecing together a series of vignettes representing what is known of Akhnaten’s life. Some of these scenes were inspired by artifacts from Akhnaten’s reign (for instance, a relief of Akhnaten and Nefertiti sitting with their six daughters), while other scenes were inspired by ancient Egyptian artifacts more generally (such as the Book of the Dead). The libretto, too, was stitched together from fragments of ancient text, including an inscription from a boundary marker found near the ruins of Akhnaten’s city Akhetaten, fragments of the “Amarna letters” (diplomatic correspondence from Akhnaten’s court), and a prayer likely written by Akhnaten himself (the beautiful “hymn to the sun”). The text for the Prelude comes from the Pyramid Texts, the earliest extant funerary literature from ancient Egypt, while the text for Amenhotep III’s funeral comes from the much later Book of the Dead. The love duet between Akhnaten and Nefertiti was taken from a poem found in a sarcophagus at the Valley of the Kings, while another text (from the “Attack and Fall” scene at the end of Act III) was found in the tomb of Akhnaten’s close relative Tutankhamun. Glass and his collaborators also included Psalm 104 from the Hebrew bible (sung by the chorus after Akhnaten’s hymn) and, as a gesture toward the importance of modern archaeology and tourism in bringing ancient Egypt back to light, passages from Frommer’s and Fodor’s guides to Egypt, spoken by the Professor at the end of Act III.
Rather than trying to fill in the missing pieces of Akhnaten’s story, Philip Glass decided to embrace the fragmented nature of the pharaoh’s archaeological record. What might be the benefits to telling a story this way? What might be some of the drawbacks? If you were preparing an opera (or a play/novel/television show/graphic novel/etc.) about Akhnaten, would you do the same thing?
Act I: Year 1 of Akhnaten’s reign, Thebes
FUNERAL OF AMENHOTEP III
Amenhotep III has died, and preparations for his funeral are under way. Priests mummify Amenhotep’s body, removing his organs, placing them in canopic jars, and wrapping and embalming the body. When his heart is removed, it is weighed on a giant scale; according to an ancient Egyptian custom, if the heart is as light as a feather, the pharaoh will successfully travel on to the afterlife. Amenhotep III’s ghost looks on, reciting prayers from the Book of the Dead as these rituals take place.
CORONATION OF AKHNATEN
Amenhotep III’s son, Amenhotep IV, steps forward and prepares to be crowned emperor. He is dressed in sacred robes, and the two crowns representing Upper and Lower Egypt are brought together and placed on his head. Amenhotep IV climbs a flight of stairs and looks out over the country he now rules.
THE WINDOW OF APPEARANCES
The new pharaoh stands at the Window of Appearances and announces his desire to form a new religion dedicated to the sun disc, or “Aten.” He has also decided to change his name to “Akhnaten,” which means “Spirit of Aten.” Akhnaten, Nefertiti (his wife), and Queen Tye (his mother) praise the Aten as the sun fills the sky behind them.
Act II: Years 5 to 15, Thebes and Akhetaten
Akhnaten and Queen Tye have begun to implement Akhnaten’s religious reforms, replacing the old religious order with new rituals that venerate the Aten. So when Akhnaten enters a temple and finds priests performing the old religious rites, he is furious. He banishes the priests and decides to build a new temple dedicated entirely to the Aten.
AKHNATEN AND NEFERTITI
Akhnaten and Nefertiti sing a duet celebrating their love. Then they turn toward the sky and sing of their love for the Aten.
A temple to Aten is no longer enough for Akhnaten. Now, he wants to build a whole new city where he can rule Egypt while venerating the sun god. He will call this new city Akhetaten, “Horizon of Aten.” Workers begin building Akhetaten in the Egyptian desert as Akhnaten looks on.
Akhnaten sings a prayer to the Aten.
Act III: Year 17 and the present, Akhetaten
Akhnaten, Nefertiti, and their six daughters live in peaceful harmony in their new palace. Yet outside the city, revolution is brewing. Queen Tye has heard that the Egyptians, unhappy about Akhnaten’s changes, come regularly to protest at the gates of the city.
ATTACK AND FALL
The crowds of protesters have only grown, and now they are led by the priests of Amun (the priests of the old religious order). When the priests and protesters manage to break down the palace doors, Nefertiti, Queen Tye, and Akhnaten’s daughters are dragged away. Akhnaten is attacked and killed.
The ghost of Amenhotep III is seen mourning his son’s death. Meanwhile, Akhnaten’s body is prepared for burial, and the new pharaoh, Tutankhamun, is crowned. The old religion is restored. The Aten is forgotten, and Egypt’s many traditional gods are once again venerated by the priests and people alike.
As Tutankhamun’s coronation takes place, a modern-day professor tells a group of students about the archaeological discoveries that have helped bring ancient Egypt to light.
On January 31, Philip Glass is born in Baltimore. He begins studying violin at age six and flute at age eight. Sitting on the living room floor and listening attentively to his older brother’s piano lessons, he soon picks up keyboard fundamentals, as well.
At 15 years old, Glass begins attending the University of Chicago through their early admission program. He will receive his BA in Liberal Arts in 1956.
Hoping to attend the Juilliard School in New York, Glass spends six months in Baltimore working as a crane operator and saving money. He enrolls in Juilliard at the end of the year.
Glass travels to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, one of the most revered music pedagogues of the 20th century. While there, he is introduced to sitar player Ravi Shankar, from whom he learns about the repeating cyclic patterns of Indian classical music. Glass is deeply impressed by this structure, which will later have a strong influence on his “minimalist” style of composition.
Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach, a five-hour work created with theater director Robert Wilson, premieres in France to wild acclaim. On November 21, the opera is performed at the Metropolitan Opera House, which Glass and Wilson have rented for the occasion. Einstein marks a decisive turning point in Glass’s career. From now on, much of his time will be devoted to composing music for the stage.
Glass visits the conductor Dennis Russell Davies at his summer home in Vermont. Glass’s newest opera, Satyagraha, based on the life of Mahatma Gandhi, will premiere in Europe the following year, and Davies encourages Glass to turn Einstein and Satyagraha into the first two parts of an operatic trilogy celebrating great historical thinkers.
Satyagraha premieres in Holland at the Netherlands Opera. Glass settles on Akhnaten as the subject for his third historical opera. The trilogy thus includes representatives from three broad categories of intellectual endeavor, with Akhnaten (“the man of religion”) joining Gandhi (“the man of politics”) and Einstein (“the man of science”).
Joining forces with Shalom Goldman, an expert on the ancient Middle East, Glass constructs a libretto for Akhnaten based on ancient artifacts and texts. Composition of the new opera’s music begins in the summer of 1982.
On March 24, Akhnaten premieres in Stuttgart, Germany. In November of the same year, it enjoys its American premiere in Houston before traveling on to New York and London.
The Einstein-Satyagraha-Akhnaten trilogy is performed in its entirety for the first time, in Stuttgart.
Glass is nominated for his first Academy Award for best original score, for the film Kundun. He will be nominated again in 2002 (for The Hours) and 2006 (for Notes on a Scandal).
Glass receives the National Medal of Arts “for his groundbreaking contributions to music and composition.” At the award ceremony, President Obama calls Glass “one of the most prolific, inventive, and influential artists of our time.”
Glass receives a Kennedy Center Honor. His fellow 2018 honorees include Cher, Reba McEntire, Wayne Shorter, and the creative team behind Hamilton.