Here Comes the Sun
Throughout his long, prolific, and innovative career, American composer Philip Glass has set the standard for contemporary classical music, so the rare arrival of one of his creations on the Met stage is a major cultural event. The 2019–20 season saw the company premiere of his transcendental Akhnaten, which starred countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo as the enigmatic title pharaoh who radically transformed ancient Egyptian society. By Christopher Browner
When Philip Glass’s Akhnaten appeared recently at English National Opera, in a spellbinding production by Phelim McDermott created in collaboration with his inventive theater company Improbable, it quickly became a sold-out sensation. Audiences were enthralled not just by the mesmerizing score but also by the glorious, colorful stage pictures and hypnotic dramatic flow. Anthony Roth Costanzo’s gripping performance of the title role—complete with extended opening nude scene—was hailed as a triumph. The production even incorporated juggling, with choreographer Sean Gandini’s troupe bringing ancient Egypt to life with their virtuoso routines.
In November 2019, this seminal staging—which the Guardian hailed as “astonishing theater”—had its eagerly anticipated Met premiere. Looking back at the work's creation, Glass recalled in his 1987 autobiography, “Practically from the moment [that I first learned about Akhnaten] … I knew I had found the subject for my third opera.” After the genre-busting success of Einstein on the Beach (1976) and Satyagraha (1980), Akhnaten rounded out what would come to be known as the composer’s Portrait Trilogy, a triptych of operas focused on innovators from across disciplines. “Akhnaten completed the trilogy in many satisfying ways,” he continues. “If Einstein epitomized the man of Science and Gandhi the man of Politics, then Akhnaten would be the man of Religion.”
Originally crowned Amenhotep IV, the 17-year-old pharaoh was only on the throne for a few years before he began to envision and enact a drastically new belief system that fundamentally altered centuries-old social and political traditions and hierarchies. He decreed that a manifestation of the sun god Ra, known as the “Aten,” or “Disk of the Sun,” be venerated above all else and went so far as to change his own name to Akhnaten, meaning “Spirit of Aten.” He even had an entirely new capital city hastily constructed and called for the destruction of statues and images of other gods.
This historic first move toward monotheism, two centuries before Moses, quickly captured Glass’s attention, but unlike in the cases of Einstein and Gandhi—20th-century figures with well-documented lives and achievements—only fragments remain from Akhnaten’s tumultuous reign. The cause of the pharaoh’s untimely death less than two decades into his rule is still unknown. Soon after his downfall, factions opposing Akhnaten’s reforms branded him as “the Great Criminal” and destroyed all but the slightest traces of his legacy. This incompleteness in Akhnaten’s biography only further captivated Glass. “We needed no more story than was already there,” he writes. “The missing pieces, far from needing to be filled in or explained, actually added to the mystery and beauty of our subject.”
In his production, McDermott drew on this ambiguity to conjure a “mythical, dreamlike version of ancient Egypt.” Rather than striving for pure historical authenticity, the staging explores Akhnaten’s life through the perspective of early 20th-century archaeologists. “We wanted to communicate the sense of what it was like for people to rediscover this ancient world—like when they opened Tutankhamen’s tomb for the first time,” he says. “We’re not being literal or trying to show a naturalistic version of what this world was like.”
The director first brought his ingenious stagecraft to the Met with a now-legendary production of Glass’s Satyagraha in 2008, utilizing everyday materials like newspaper, corrugated tin, and towering puppets constructed of wicker baskets. But when he decided to set his sights on another one of the composer’s masterpieces, he instead sought inspiration from antiquity. “Akhnaten in particular is very ritualistic,” the director says. “It’s very much inspired by the Egyptian Book of the Dead and is, in one sense, a story of what happens to the dead as they progress into the afterlife, or as they believed it, a kind of parallel life.”
Conceptualizing the opera in the early 1980s (Akhnaten had its world premiere in Stuttgart in 1984), the composer was intrigued by the ancient Egyptian obsession with death and its accompanying rites. “Probably no culture or society has been so death-conscious as the Egyptians. They seem hardly ever to have stopped thinking about it,” Glass notes. “This death thinking especially fascinated me … The more I became involved with the material, the more I began to see the funeral as an overall ‘image’ for the work.”
“This isn’t your usual linear narrative. It’s a meditation, more like a poem,” McDermott adds, “so we needed to find a particular vocabulary to translate the music dramatically.” To do so, the director turned to choreographer Gandini, whose exceptionally talented troupe of performers provides a surprising but stunningly effective solution: juggling.
“Jugglers first existed in ancient Egypt,” McDermott explains, “so Sean’s pattern juggling is a natural expression of the rituals that we’re creating.” For Costanzo, the juggling is a perfect match for Glass’s intricate musical lines. “The first time I saw it and heard the music at the same time, tears streamed down my face,” he recalls. “It was as if the music was visible. It creates such a visceral effect on stage.”
Starring alongside Costanzo, two exceptionally talented artists with strong connections to Glass’s music made their Met debuts. Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges—whose recent performance in Satyagraha at LA Opera was hailed as “gorgeously resonant” by The Los Angeles Times—appeared as Akhnaten’s queen, Nefertiti. And on the podium, Karen Kamensek, who conducted the production’s original London premiere, brougt years of experience with Glass’s work. “She knows this music inside out,” Costanzo says. “Imagine the precision it requires to keep this whole show together. She is fearsome and strong, but she also radiates such warmth from the pit.”
But even under Kamensek’s expert leadership, adjusting to Glass’s musical language proved a major undertaking for Costanzo. “It was nearly impossible to memorize,” he laments. “The only way to do it was to make it a part of my body—almost a ritual. And that’s what this whole show is, more than anything: a beautiful and meaningful ritual.”
In casting his lead character as a countertenor, a voice type more typically found in the performance of 18th-century music, Glass sought to set Akhnaten apart not only from the rest of the characters on stage but also from other figures in history. “The effect of hearing a high, beautiful voice coming from the lips of a full-grown man can at first be very startling,” he acknowledges. “It was a way of musically and dramatically indicating in the simplest possible way that here was a man unlike any who had come before.”
The choice also emphasizes a peculiar aspect of the lore surrounding the pharaoh. Due to multiple images depicting Akhnaten with wide hips, enlarged stomach, and full breasts, early scholars speculated that the young man was possibly intersex. Current thinking, however, offers a different explanation. As Danish Egyptologist Paul John Frandsen points out, these representations likely show the pharaoh as “the god of creation … containing both the male and female creative principle.” For Frandsen, this symbol finds its musical analogue in the countertenor voice. “The iconography of Akhnaten is the visual rendering of a theological dogma, and the musical rendering could hardly find a more apt expression than a voice that is neither male nor female.”
This musical decision is but one of a number of unique facets of the opera’s score. Another is its complete lack of violins. At the time of the work’s 1984 world premiere in Stuttgart, the city’s main opera house was undergoing a renovation, and the performances were instead scheduled for a nearby theater with a smaller-than-usual orchestra pit. Rather than reduce each of the string sections by an equal number of players, Glass chose to eliminate the violins altogether, producing “a low, dark sound that came to characterize the piece and suited the subject very well.”
Even with the violins absent, the composer succeeds in painting with a broad palette of colors. Ravishingly lyrical scenes such as Akhnaten’s “Hymn to the Sun” (set to a text believed to have been penned by the pharaoh himself) and the love duet that he shares with Nefertiti contrast sharply with what Glass describes as the “raw, primitive, quasi-military” Act I funeral music for Akhnaten’s father, with its “blaring brass and pounding drums.”
For McDermott, this “percussive, rhythmic” quality of the piece only further contributes to the opera’s “incredibly exciting ritualistic feel”—even if, as he admits, Glass’s distinct musical approach requires that listeners “be in a certain place to be receptive to it and to respond to it.”
Costanzo concurs. “Glass’s minimalism creates such a depth of emotion and experience, it’s completely unlike anything else. It washes over you like hypnosis. The effect that it has on you is something I can’t describe. You’ll just have to come to the Met and experience it for yourself.”
Christopher Browner is the Met’s Associate Editor.