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Writing ‘Akhnaten’

A co-author of Philip Glass’ Egyptian opera, opening at the Met this weekend, recalls how the monotheistic ‘heretic Pharaoh’ became the fat lady

Shalom Goldman
November 06, 2019
Paola Kudacki / Met Opera
Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role of Glass' 'Akhnaten' Paola Kudacki / Met Opera
Paola Kudacki / Met Opera
Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role of Glass' 'Akhnaten' Paola Kudacki / Met Opera

Akhnaten, Philip Glass’ “Egyptian opera,” opening at the Metropolitan Opera this weekend, premiered in 1984 and since then has been produced in many different stagings, primarily in European cities, where the composer has a very large and enthusiastic audience. Akhnaten’s American production story has been much more modest. In New York, it was first staged at the New York City Opera when that company was directed by Beverly Sills.

Three decades ago Glass was still thought of as an avant-garde downtown composer. Uptown audiences, especially those who went to the Metropolitan Opera, were not yet ready for his heady minimalist music and his extravagant theater-music conceptions. As co-author of Akhnaten’s libretto, and as compiler and translator of its vocal texts, I have traveled to consult on and see at least a dozen of the opera’s productions in cities around the world. But as a native New Yorker, I can’t help but being especially thrilled anticipating its reception at the Metropolitan Opera. For it was in 1956, at the “old” Metropolitan Opera House (before Lincoln Center was built in the early 1960s) that I saw my first opera—a performance of Verdi’s great “Egyptian opera” Aida, which featured a live elephant and made a deep impression on me, perhaps leading to a lifelong interest in matters Egyptian and Middle Eastern.

Until I was in my mid-30s, I never thought that I would be able to visit Egypt. As an American Jew who had lived for long periods in Israel, it seemed unlikely that I would be granted a visa. But in the early 1980s, soon after the Israeli-Egyptian peace accords were formalized, I was able to embark on the first of three long trips to Egypt. Along with other Israeli and American Jewish scholars in Middle Eastern studies, I had eagerly awaited the opportunity to see both modern Egypt and the monuments of ancient Egypt. And once that opportunity presented itself—in my case, in the form of a study grant from my graduate program—I grabbed it.

That first visit inspired me to study hieroglyphics and read ancient Egyptian stories. I did not aspire to become an Egyptologist, which requires a total focus on Egyptian language, culture, and history. Rather, I sought to add a basic knowledge of Egypt and Egyptian to my portfolio of skills pertaining to the study of the Middle East.

A few months after I returned from my first trip to Egypt I was at a reception for artists, teachers, and graduate students. At the party, held in one of New York University’s downtown performance spaces, I met the composer Philip Glass. Ten years older than I was—I was in my early 30s and he was in his early 40s—Glass was well known in downtown circles, but he was struggling to make a living from his music, both from his compositions and from his ensemble’s performances of those compositions. He was looking to expand his audience uptown: to Lincoln Center, Juilliard (where he was trained), and to Carnegie Hall and other venues.

Someone at the party had told Glass that I was studying Egyptian language and culture. He sought me out, introduced himself and asked if I knew anything about Akhnaten, the “heretic Pharaoh.” The party had put me in a jocular mood and my immediate response was “know about him? I just saw him!” I explained that I had only recently returned from Cairo, where the massive statue of Akhnaten in the Cairo Museum was the Egyptian artifact that had made the deepest impression on me. (Later I realized that in my response I was channeling a skit in 2000 Year Old Man in which Carl Reiner asks Mel Brooks if he had known Joan of Arc. “What do you mean knew her,” said Brooks, “I dated her!”) Our initial conversation about Egypt and Akhnaten lasted for more than an hour.

In his remarkably creative way, Glass had been reading widely about Egypt and Akhnaten. He had studied James Henry Breasted’s authoritative History of Egypt and he read Freud’s speculations about Akhnaten in his last book, Moses and Monotheism. We agreed to meet the following week to continue our conversation. I told Glass that for our next meeting I would bring pictures of Akhnaten, his wife Nefertiti, and of his artistic creations. For Akhnaten was an artist and poet, as well as a Pharaoh—or at least that was the claim of some experts.

Our subsequent meetings at which I was introduced to Glass’ theater and music collaborators, Robert Israel and Richard Riddell, went very well. They had worked with Glass on Satyagraha and were collaborating with him on the creation of Akhnaten. Asked by Glass if I would be able to serve as a researcher on his Egyptian project, I said yes.

Why, I asked, had he chosen the unlikely figure of Akhnaten for an opera? I knew that Glass had written two theater-music pieces in the previous decade. Einstein on the Beach in 1976 and Satyagraha (about Gandhi’s years in South Africa) in 1982. Aspiring to complete a trilogy of Wagnerian scope, Glass had been searching for a third grand historical figure, a figure who, like Einstein and Gandhi, had changed the world with ideas. His formulation was: “Einstein as the man of science, Gandhi as the man of politics, Akhnaten as the man of religion.”

In his 1987 book, Music by Philip Glass, the composer explained his fascination with the heretic king: “On becoming Pharaoh, he declared a new religion based upon Aten, associated with the sun, but not actually the sun itself, a very important point theologically. His new god was supreme and alone, making Akhnaten the first declared monotheist in history. … Finally, by not completely identifying his god with the physical sun but emphasizing his independent nature, Akhnaten’s god is the first truly abstract god head we know.”

Glass knew that not all historians of religion and culture agreed with this description. But for Glass, the main point was that “Akhnaten had changed his (and our) world through the force of his ideas and not through the force of arms.”

Early in our work together I asked Glass what language the opera would be sung in. He said that he wasn’t yet sure, but he knew that he wanted to achieve what he and his librettists had done in Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha: to create an “otherworldly,” strange, but somehow authentic vocal sound.

Akhnaten, I understood, was not to be another Aida—an opera set in Egypt with a romantic story and a libretto sung in Italian. In Akhnaten, in sharp contrast to Aida, the story and songs were to be authentically Egyptian. Was it possible, Glass asked, to have the vocal texts sung in ancient Egyptian? Wasn’t Egyptian a “really dead language?” I assured him that it was possible for us to create a libretto in Egyptian and suggested that to accurately represent Akhnaten’s era, and his cross-cultural influence, we should have some of the ancient texts sung in Akkadian, the language of mid-second millennium B.C. Mesopotamia, and also in the Hebrew of the Bible, whose earliest texts are from the period of Akhnaten’s royal successors.

My promotion, as it were, from researcher to writer, happened at this juncture—when I showed Glass that the “very dead languages” problem could be solved—and that I was the one to solve it. I would not solve it on my own, I explained, but would confer with my teachers and other experts in the languages of the ancient Near East.

Not only would the language of the opera be ancient and authentic, but so would its storyline. We know little of the historical Akhnaten, who lived in the 14th century B.C. His monuments were destroyed by his successors, who deemed him a rebel and a heretic; only fragments of his imperial city, Akhetaten—the City of the Horizon—survived. It was out of these fragments of artifacts and texts that our group built the libretto.

As we wrote in the CD book that accompanied the CBS Masterworks 1987 recording of Akhnaten: “Like Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha this is not a ‘story opera’ but an episodic-symbolic portrait of a historical personality whose visionary ideas dramatically changed the perceptions of the world around him.”

For Glass, the fragmentary nature of Akhnaten’s legacy was itself a creative spur. “To me,” he said, “the mystery of not knowing began to have a certain attraction of its own … the chronology of the material is vague; the connections seem to be one of style. And yet, after a time, the fragments begin to tell their story. If parts of the story are missing, it serves to add poignancy rather that make it any less real.”

Our group endeavor to create this opera, an endeavor that engaged the talents of many artists, extended over three years, from 1981 to 1984. In April of 1984 Akhnaten premiered at the Opera House in Stuttgart, Germany, and then at Houston Grand Opera in Texas. And in November of that year, it was at the New York City Opera in Manhattan.

Yet while European audiences and critics lauded the opera and its artistically daring production, American audiences and critics (especially the establishment critics at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal) were less enthusiastic. Essentially, they panned the opera and its production. In London of the 1990s and 2000s Akhnaten was produced to great acclaim. It seems that Akhnaten, like avant-garde jazz and other American musical contributions, would have to triumph in Europe first, and then, decades later, return home.

Shalom Goldman is Professor of Religion at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Starstruck in the Promised Land: How the Arts Shaped American Passions about Israel.

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