PREVIEW: ‘Akhnaten’ a collaboration with Indy, IU

Music Beat

‘Akhnaten’ a collaboration with Indy, IU

By Peter JacobiH-T Columnist
February 17, 2013


Early in the month, IU Opera Theater, for the first time in its history, presented “Xerxes,” Handel’s 1738 musically gorgeous, highly fictionalized, frothy, romanticized portrait of the mighty king who fought to expand the reach and power of ancient Persia.

Come Friday, courtesy of IU Opera Theater in another first-time venture, the stage of the Musical Arts Center turns into scenes from ancient Egypt. In focus will be another ruler, a pharaoh, he not bent on military conquest but on that of the human mind and heart. Akhnaten is that pharaoh, a monotheist in a place and time such religious belief was alien.

That complex and polarizing figure is at the center of Philip Glass’ 1983 opera, “Akhnaten,” a drama that unfolds to music written in the Glass style, minimalism, featuring repetitious musical lines with often barely discernible gradations and variations in melody and rhythm.

Says conductor and music director Arthur Fagen: “When I’m immersed in the story and score — as I was previously, while conducting the Atlanta Opera Company production in 2009, and now am again during work for the IU production — I get a sense of taking a trip to a completely different world, both dramatically and musically. And I’m awed about the Egypt of long ago, a highly developed society with long-developed religious concepts and political intrigues into which monotheism is so abruptly introduced.”

Says stage director Candace Evans: “The task is to not make seeing the opera a history lesson. ‘Akhnaten’ is not a timeline biography. It’s a series of vignettes which require a trajectory. I looked at the piece and asked, ‘Why should an audience care?’ Well, I decided it could and should, that here were scenes, beautiful pearls that simply needed sustained movement and visuals to help shape a story. Last summer, as I began to study the opera, today’s Egypt came into focus. I saw a parallel, the struggle way back then and again now between traditionalists and revolutionaries, those who cling to what is and those who want change. We’re using that as a unifying factor.”

Says set designer Douglas Fitch: “We’re bookending the production. There’s a silent prologue of Tahrir Square, a sequence of visuals reminding us of what happened there two years ago, the demonstrations, the burned out vehicles, the streets being cleared and cleaned. At the end, we return to our time and have tourists at the ruins, symbolizing the struggle to change a civilization. In between, we see a king so different from the other kings. He is the monotheist whose reign brings even a different look in Egyptian art. Akhnaten was all about change. But then, his legacy was destroyed, and everything went back to what was before.”

Philip Glass has written a series of operas and stage pieces about individuals of unusual consequence: Akhenaten, Albert Einstein (“Einstein on the Beach”), Mahatma Gandhi (“Satyagraha”), Galileo (“Galileo Galilei”), and Johannes Kepler (“Kepler”). Just this month, a new Glass opera premiered based on the life of Walt Disney.

The first three listed, says the composer, concern “three men who revolutionized the thoughts and events of their times through the power of an inner vision. This, then, is the theme of the trilogy. Einstein — the man of science; Gandhi — the man of politics; Akhnaten — the man of religion. These themes (science, politics, religion) are, to an extent, shared by all three, and they inform our ideological and real worlds.”

The text for “Akhnaten” comes from original sources and is sung in the original languages: Egyptian, Arcadian, Hebrew. The narration, however, is performed in the language of the audience, here in English.

“None of that,” says conductor Fagen, “makes the opera any easier, of course, for the singers. The vocal writing stretches from angular to lyrical, and the shifts can be problematical. Also, Glass has designed an aesthetic completely different from what players are used to. And I mean that for both the singers and the orchestra. Often, the music is one of long stretches with only incremental changes, amidst which we must find the occasional harmonic flourish, and it may be just at the micro level. Then, suddenly switching, we get music that gives a sense of flight. Also, the music does not tend to give either the singers or, say, the wind players much space to breathe. It’s a test of sensitivity and endurance for them.”

The score calls for an electronic synthesizer and an orchestra with no violins, meaning that the violinists of the IU Concert Orchestra, the pit ensemble, are getting a vacation, whether they wanted it or not. For all else, though, the preparation, says director Evans, has been rigorous, adding that the casts “have been taking enthusiastically to the project. The singers are of an age that they’d be the people in the streets. Then and now, they’d be in revolution. I tell them, ‘My dears, look at those pictures of now, and think of back then. How daunting life would be for you in Egypt, present and past.’ Those possibilities excite them.”

Add stage pictures that, says Fitch, “give a sense of the Egyptian, of building materials raw but natural, of temples, of statuaries, of the symbol of the sun in which Akhnaten saw his god, an environment in which the heretic king sought to thrive and survive, along with his family. I hope we’ve captured what Philip Glass sought.”

So, what should we expect? Fagen says, “The piece has a big impact on the performers and the public. I find it hard to describe, but the opera has so much to say. The story has lessons out of our lives. The music has powerful moments, and an absolutely magnificent one in the second act, the hymn of the priests.”

Evans rates the opera musically, “as one of the most accessible pieces that Glass wrote. It is a good introduction to his work. It is not intimidating. The opera is shorter than the others in the trilogy, about two hours including intermission. The story is arresting. People, I believe, will realize, no matter whether they arrived pro or con about contemporary music, that ‘Akhnaten’ wasn’t scary as a work of art. And they will, I hope, think more about the stake of a people in their government, about the responsibilities of those in power, and the responsibilities of the governed to watch, lest they lose their rights and freedom.”

Reach Peter by sending an email to with “Jacobi” in the subject line.

If you go

WHAT AND WHO: Philip Glass’ bio-opera, “Akhnaten,” about the Egyptian pharaoh who tried to bring monotheism to his society, receives its first IU Opera Theater production, one devised in collaboration with the Indianapolis Opera. Two casts alternate under the musical direction of Arthur Fagen and the stage direction of Candace Evans. Douglas Fitch designed the sets and Linda Pisano the costumes.

WHERE: Musical Arts Center on the Indiana University Bloomington campus.

WHEN: Friday and Saturday evenings, this week and next, at 8.

TICKETS: Opening night, Friday, general admission, $25 for adults, $12 for students; remaining nights, reserved seats, $15-$38 for adults, $10-$27 for students.

IN INDIANAPOLIS: The production, under the auspices of the Indianapolis Opera, moves to Clowes Memorial Hall on the Butler University campus, 4601 Sunset Avenue, for performances at 8 p.m. on March 8 and 9.


This afternoon at 4 in Auer Hall, the Symphonic Choir, led by four student conductors, sings music of Finzi, Palestrina, Britten, DiOrio, Part, Chun, Kim, Manuel, and Haydn. Free.

This evening at 8 in Auer, faculty composer Aaron Travers presents a recital that includes four of his works: for soprano and ensemble, for saxophone quartet, for organ, and for solo flute. Free.

Tuesday evening at 7 in Ford-Crawford Hall, guitarist/vocalist Tomas Lozano performs a guest recital of Hispanic ballads. Free.

Tuesday evening at 7:30 in Carmichael Auditorium of Bloomington South, the Southern Indiana Wind Ensemble, led by Eric Smedley, plays a side-by-side concert with high school musicians. Free.

Saturday afternoon at 5 in Ford, IU’s Early Music Institute offers a chamber music recital. Free.
Brennan Hall portrays Akhnaten with Laura Thoresen as Nefertiti in IU Opera Theater’s production of “Akhnaten,” which opens Friday. Courtesy photo

Cast members of “Akhnaten” rehearse for IU’s newest opera. Courtesy photo

Copyright: 2013


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