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Philip Glass: An Operatic Life

Oct 16, 2015 10:23:00 AM
By BLO Staff

By John Conklin, BLO Artistic Advisor 
Image courtesy of Stewart Cohen

Nefertiti, Walt Disney, Columbus, Martin Luther King, Robert E. Lee, Einstein, Gandhi, Galileo, Stephen Hawking, and so on: What composer has managed to weave such an astonishingly disparate set of figures into his operas? Yet the range merely illustrates the scope, the variety, the endless curiosity and exploration of the protean Philip Glass. His 26 operas (the exact number count varies, as he plays extensively in the borders between genres) form an unassailable place at the center of contemporary opera—and of course, there certainly are more to come. In the website Operabase’s statistical listing for the seasons 2009- 14, his operas take first place in the category of performances of works by a living composer by a wide margin (Glass came in at 79, compared to 29 by Jake Heggie and 28 by John Adams). The Fall of the House of Usher is his most-performed opera.

He has set libretti in a multitude of languages—Sanskrit, Spanish, Latin, Hebrew, Akkadian. He has set texts drawn from such figures as Allen Ginsberg, Doris Lessing, Edgar Allan Poe, and Franz Kafka (In the Penal Colony, of course, but also The Trial). He finds a vital compositional energy in close and ongoing collaborations with directors, designers, performers, and conductors such as Robert Wilson, Martin Scorsese, and Ravi Shankar. He writes in a wide range of compositional genres: nine symphonies, plus chamber music, concerti, movie scores (earning three Academy Award nominations), song cycles, music for dance, incidental theater music. He is a sympathetic, relaxed, and eloquent speaker and a skilled writer. His recent book, Words Without Music, is a unique combination of intriguing autobiography (including anecdotes on studying at Juilliard and then with Nadia Boulanger, driving a taxi, hanging out in New York City in the ‘60s, the trials and delights of becoming a “famous” composer, and more), a fascinating glimpse into the musical intricacy of his compositions, a sobering study of how a contemporary “serious” musician can (or cannot) make a living, and, as Laurie Anderson puts it, “his transcendent vision of human culture as the transmission of ideas through time.”

To end on a more personal note, I have had the great pleasure myself to collaborate with Philip on two occasions. In 1990, he composed music for the chorus in a production of The Bacchae, a production of the Public Theater in Central Park that I designed. The compositions were complex, difficult, and summoned up a vision of the exaltation and terror of the Greek theater at its most powerful.

Glass in 1993. Photograph by Pasquale Salerno.
Public domain.

I also worked closely with him, the director JoAnne Akalaitis, and the costume and lighting designers Susan Hilferty and Jennifer Tipton on the world premiere of In the Penal Colony, given in Seattle and subsequently in New York City. He was at all times both rigorous and open, generous of spirit and just a great guy to sit down with and have a talk (about anything). JoAnne had an idea to introduce Kafka as a character, speaking text from his diary, and after much discussion (it significantly altered the form and rhythm of the piece), he embraced the idea. There was also inevitably much talk about how to represent the “machine” on stage. I remember gingerly suggesting perhaps the movements of members of the string quintet, as they played the driving score with its almost obsessive energy, might “be” the visual manifestation of the machine. This was seriously considered but, in the end, discarded. I was always impressed by Philip’s genuine ability to understand and to absorb any ideas of his fellow collaborators into the spirit of the production…even if in this case, my idea embarrassingly equated his music with a terrifying instrument of torture. Perhaps I had not thought the implications out thoroughly, but Philip just smiled generously.

This article has been reprinted from the fall issue of Coda, the magazine of Boston Lyric Opera. To read the magazine in full, please visit www.blo.org/coda

Topics: 2015/16 Season, In the Penal Colony, Philip Glass, John Conklin

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