It’s late at night. It’s intermission, as I watch Philip Glass’s opera Akhnaten from Jacobs School of Music, at Indiana University, Bloomington, conducted by Arthur Fagen, directed by Candace Evans, and live-streamed on my laptop. This student production is very impressive, raising some interesting thoughts, in no particular order. How cool is it that I am watching this thing live, while I comment? What a world we live in. This opera invites this kind of fourth-dimensional thinking, an opera that straddles millennia like a colossus.
Oh how I wish we’d stage it (or Satyagraha) here in Toronto.
The design/directorial team have chosen to depart slightly from what Glass wrote, in one of the more intriguing departures from a text. The opera is set mostly in the distant past (the time of Akhnaten), plus a tiny bit in the present day, when the dead souls of Akhnaten & his family suddenly recognize –sometime in our century—that they’re dead. It’s one of several magic moments.
The big change? That we begin not in ancient times, but in the modern Egyptian uprising, among burned out cars. While I was dubious when I read of this, I was moved powerfully when I recognized that this is exactly what this opera is about: an opera concerning the fights between faith groups in ancient Egypt. Akhnaten banishes the old beliefs in favour of the first mono-theistic religion in history; and of course he and his family are removed in a violent upheaval when the old faith & power structures are restored. When it appeared the talk was that this is an opera about faith and religion; and that Satyagraha is an opera about politics.
In Satyagraha Gandhi and his followers protest in South Africa. But its core? Faith & spirituality. Gandhi tells us (possibly my favourite lines in all opera)…
Whenever the law of righteousness withers away and lawlessness arises, then do I generate myself on earth. I come into being age after age and take a visible shape and move a man with men for the protection of good, thrusting the evil back and setting virtue on her seat again.
Gandhi takes action out of conscience, but as a kind of incarnation of the spirit of good. Martin Luther King –whom we see murdered near the end of the opera—likewise steps forward, passionately doing what he believes is right. By the spiritual calculus of the quote, both Gandhi and King, and also –by implication—such figures as Jesus, also step forward to incarnate the spirit of truth and good in human form on Earth. My mind boggles thinking about this paradox: that the supposedly religious opera is about politics, and the supposedly political opera is about spirit & religion. I think, too, that it’s intriguing that when we see people talk about faith –as we see Akhnaten praying—that it’s less spiritual in its way than when we see Gandhi trying to lift the spirits of his followers in their struggle. Seeing someone pray is not as dramatic as seeing someone live through a crisis of faith, as we see several times in Satyagraha. How odd that is, but how true to how the human eye perceives things. I wonder, am I partly influenced, too by the directorial choice, that frames Akhnaten’s spirituality within a political frame, suggesting that his choice is within a temporal frame, that his faiths will be overcome and overturned, just as the Egyptian uprising is part of a political struggle between faith groups. That frame makes the prayer seem to be a physical and human reality rather than a timeless and spiritual one. But then again what we’re really talking about is that discrepancy between the ideals of a religion and its spiritual essence. And the metaphor of the current uprising superimposed upon this opera aligns Akhnaten with the out-of-touch tyrant Hosni Mubarak who is overthrown by the will of the people (did they want that? I wonder. It’s a brave choice). The one really spiritual moment in Akhnaten (when the offstage chorus intones psalm 104) works precisely because we don’t have the physical reality of an actor getting in the way of our own prayerful moment. Did Glass realize what he’d created? From his current vantage point –75 years old—chances are he gets it now.
And yes, it moves me that this quote is older than any of those humans I named, that this is an ancient idea.
I love that this university chooses to stage an American opera rather than standard repertoire. Yes it’s true that the students would gain from learning a role in a Mozart opera. But isn’t it wonderful that these students are challenged to do something difficult & worthwhile: like this. I was commenting (more than once) how proud I was to be in a production of a Feydeau farce at Ryerson, a play you won’t usually find on a commercial stage. Ditto Indiana U.
Bravi, Indiana U..!