The first cycle of Sate Opera of South Australia’s Philip Glass Trilogy opens tonight with Akhnaten at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Adelaide.
Exclusive to Adelaide, it’s the first time the three operas – Akhnaten, Einstein on the beach and Satyagraha – have been presented in a cycle in Australia. Over the next three weeks, there are three complete cycles.
The operas are based on the lives of three exceptional men who challenged dominant beliefs of their times: Ancient Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaten in religion, Albert Einstein in science and Mathatma Gandhi in politics. Glass once described the works as “portraits of people whose personal vision transformed the thinking of their times through the power of ideas rather then my military force”.
Akhnaten premiered in 1984 by the Stuttgart State Opera (the only other company to have presented a trilogy, in 1990) and Satyagraha, which is sung in Sanskrit with a text adopted from the Bhagavad Gita, in 1980 by the Netherlands Opera.
Einstein on the Beach was first performed in 1976 at the Avignon Festival in France and in New York at the Metropolitan Opera House. In the 36 years since, there have been three revivals of this production, in 1984, 1992 and 2012. They came to Melbourne in 1992 and 2013 and the Melbourne opera and theatre scene is still divided into those who saw Einstein and those who didn’t.
It’s rarely been seen out of the context of this original production and this is the first time it’s been produced in Australia.
Timothy Sexton, Conductor and Chorus Master, and also the CEO and Artistic Director of the company, said about Einstein, “I was really inspired how it approached operas from a new direction as opposed from it being a development of something from an existing operatic form. Philip Glass, like the three characters in his operas, made his mark by doing something completely different.”
It was a work that changed contemporary opera by not being anything that was expected on an opera stage.
I saw the 1992 and 2013 Melbourne tours and said the following after my re-visit:
“Describing Einstein is dangerous. It’s a reflection on genius that sits on the knife edge between genius and madness – and it wasn’t created to be understood. There’s no story, plot or characters. The singers are treated like instruments and most recognisable sounds are numbers. There’s no dialogue, but poetry that is more words and sounds than meaning. Personality is stripped away from the performers and each are treated identically on the stage. It’s repetitive and languid and there are times when change takes place so slowly that you only realise what’s happened after it’s happened. But it’s precise and ordered and the wholeness of the picture, sound and movement is so complete that nothing less than perfect ever feels right again.”
Even it’s creation was starting from scratch and re-inventing how opera was made. Glass composed music specifically for the images that director/designer (Robert Wilson) and choreographer (Lucinda Childs) created. Glass says he put Wilson’s notebook of sketches “on the piano and composed each section like a portrait of the drawing before me.”
They worked so closely together that it’s almost impossible to see where the influence of one ends and the next steps in. And all three worked on the revivals, re-working and, in Childs’ case re-choreographing, as they saw fit.
The four-and-a-half-hour, no interval, production alternates between Wilson-run and Childs-run scenes, so already the State Opera work is claiming it’s own territory with Leigh Warren as director and choreographer of all three works, and Mary Moore and Geoff Cobham as designer and lighting designer.
I still can’t imagine Einstein as anything but that Wilson/Childs/Glass version, but I can’t wait to see what happens when new minds start with the music and create from there. And I’m following Sexton’s advice:
“There will be something for everyone in these. It requires a different sort of concentration. Come with no expectations at all with no preconceptions, most of all, and be prepared to be excited.”