Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Philip Glass: not for beginners

For those of you who may be rookie opera-goers, let me give you some advice: do not make anything by Philip Glass your first.

While I've been to dozens of operas in my day, never had I seen a performance of the famed minimalist's music before this evening. I attended the final dress rehearsal of the Atlanta Opera's concert-staged production of Akhnaten, the last in Glass's trilogy of so-called portrait operas, which is based on the life of the ancient-Egyptian pharaoh of the same name. (The companion works, Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha, depict Albert Einstein and Mahatma Ghandi, respectively.) Here, "concert-staged" meant full costume and makeup for all but the chorus, clad in black and seated at the back of the platform; minimal set and lighting effects; and supernumeraries and props aplenty. If there's an industry standard for concertizing operas -- more often than not an awkward endeavor -- I'd love to see it. On most occasions I find myself wishing they had gone one way or the other and not just split the difference.

Tonight's open dress was billed as one for high school and college students. Also present, probably in greater number than either of the aforementioned groups, were opera donors and gaggles of elementary-aged kids, dressed to the nines. When General Director Dennis Hanthorn appeared onstage to welcome the audience, he asked for a show of hands of those who had never seen an opera before: At least a quarter of the audience, perhaps even a third, was experiencing live opera for the first time.

Which brings me back to my point. If you've never been to an opera, this is perhaps the worst place to start. I am a curious person who is accepting of most musical genres and styles, but tonight I learned that Philip Glass's particular brand of minimalism really doesn't do it for me. His music is unrelentingly repetitious, pushing listeners to the point of boredom and eventually annoyance. You could tell the orchestra musicians were listless, too -- only minutes in, their playing grew tired and imprecise. The music would be fine for a film score, supporting visuals and action onscreen, but lacked the depth and momentum I have come to expect from opera, where music is the driving force. (My date and I both surmised that a straight-up concert performance might have been the best presentation.) There's only so much that an A-minor arpeggio has to say.

What may have been more troublesome for the neophytes in the audience is the fact that the title role of Akhnaten is sung by a countertenor. Operas employing this voice-type -- a man singing in a woman's range -- are generally not ones I would recommend for young children (easily confused) or males below the legal drinking age (infantile fratboys). My fear is that dozens upon dozens of kids in attendance will have been insufficiently prepared for the experience and subsequently freaked out by the strange man in Cleopatra eyeliner, singing like a girl. (I realize that this opera probably ties in with some school curricula that have been devised to take advantage of the King Tut exhibit, in Atlanta through May. I am grateful that opera is part of these children's education, but disappointed it wasn't a better, more engaging production.)

In this Atlanta Opera staging, the performers were about as dynamic as artifacts in a museum exhibit. (Incidentally, this setting provided the story of Akhnaten with modern-day bookends -- a heavy-handed tactic that was, frankly, lame.) That's not entirely their fault; the story has no fun or even sympathetic characters that we can laugh with or relate to. I don't think we heard everyone singing at his or her best, either. Soprano Kiera Duffy, playing Akhnaten's mother, Queen Tye, was under the weather and marked her performance, singing quietly an octave below where her part was written. A male trio of three advisors and priests lacked any semblance of balance in its ensemble singing, overwhelmed by the tenor; the opera chorus rushed and shouted its way through pages and pages of ah's. Don't even get me started on the orchestra brass.

In the end, I'm glad I went, if only to realize how vastly Philip Glass and apparently I differ in our conceptions of music, opera and drama. I'm interested to read the eventual review in the paper from Pierre Ruhe, one of the few remaining arts & culture types on staff at the AJC these days. Since Dennis Hanthorn took over directorship of the Atlanta Opera from William Fred Scott, nearly every production has been hailed a resounding success. I don't see how this could possibly qualify as such, at least in terms that go beyond the novelty of performing and selling tickets to late-20th-century opera in Atlanta.

[Editor's note: Indeed, Pierre gushed over Akhnaten, interpreting the sold-out event as an indication of Atlanta's ever-improving standing in the music world. What I found interesting about his review is that I agreed with pretty much everything he said about the production -- mostly stated as fact -- but we differed on one key point: he liked the music, and I did not. Minimalist masterpiece, you say? That may be so, but minimalist works should be held to the same standards of quality and musicality as more familiar pieces from earlier periods.]

1 comment:

Raquel Laneri said...

We had to study Einstein on the Beach in my freshman musicology class... fun stuff...

Enjoyed this! Some parts really had me LOLing--like the countertenor stuff.