How a Philip Glass Opera Gets Made: An Inside Look

Most fever dreams require very little pre-planning and coordination. All it takes is the flu and a pillow, and perhaps a shot of Ny-Quil.

A fever dream on the order of composer Philip Glass’ 1984 opera, Akhnaten, is a horse of an entirely different color, as "How An Opera Gets Made," above, makes clear.

For those in the performing arts, the revelations of this eyepopping Vox video will come as no surprise, though the formidable resources of New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, where the piece was recently restaged by director Phelim McDermott, may be cause for envy.




The costumes!

The wigs!

The set!

The orchestra!

The jugglers!

… wait, jugglers?

Yes, a dozen, whose carefully coordinated efforts provide a counterpoint to the stylized slow motion pace the rest of the cast maintains for the duration of the three and half hour long show.

This maximalist approach to minimalist modern opera has proved a hit, though the New York Timescritic Anthony Tommasini opined that he could have done with less juggling…

We presume everyone gets that bringing an opera to the stage involves many more departments, steps, and heavy labor than can be squeezed into a 10-minute video.

Perhaps the biggest surprise awaiting the uninitiated is the playful offstage manner of Anthony Roth Costanzo, the supremely gifted countertenor in the title role. As the pharaoh who reduced ancient Egypt’s pantheon to a single god, Atenaka the sun, he makes his first entrance completely nude, head shaved, flecked in gold, facing the audience for the entirety of his four-minute descent down a 12-step staircase.

(One step the video doesn't touch on is the workout regimen he embarked on in preparation for his nude debut, a 6-day-a-week commitment that inspired him to found one of the first American businesses to offer fitness buffs training sessions using Electrical Muscle Stimulation.)

His dedication to his craft is obviously extraordinary. It has to be for him to handle the score’s demanding arpeggios and intricate repetitions, notably the six-minute segment whose only lyric is “ah.” His breath control on that section earns high praise from his longtime vocal coach Joan Patenaude-Yarnell.

But—and this will come as a shock to those of us whose concept of male opera stars is informed nearly exclusively by Bugs Bunny cartoons and the late Luciano Pavarotti—his outsized talent does not seem to be reflected in outsized self-regard.

He treats viewers to a self-deprecating peek inside the Met’s wig room while clad in a decidedly anti-primo uomo sweatshirt, gamely dons his styrofoam khepresh for close range inspection, and cracks himself up by high-fiving his own pharaonic image in the lobby.

There’s incredible lightness to this being.

As such, he may be more effective at attracting a new generation of admirers to the art form than any discounts or pre-show mixer for patrons 35-and-under.

For further insights into how this musical sausage got made, have a gander at the Metropolitan Opera’s pre-production videos and read star Anthony Roth Costanzo’s essay in the Guardian.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, January 6 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates New York: The Nation’s Metropolis (1921). Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Is Opera Part of Pop Culture? Pretty Much Pop #15 with Sean Spyres

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Opera used to be a central part of European pop culture, Pavarotti was as big a pop star as they come. But still, it's now the quintessential art-form of the wealthy and snobbish. What gives?

Guest Sean Spyres from Springfield Regional Opera joins his sister Erica along with Mark and Brian to discuss opera's place in culture (including its film appearances), how it's different from music theater, the challenges it faces and how it might become more relevant.

Some articles:

Watch the Shawshank Redemption opera scene or perhaps the Pretty Woman scene. What Is pop opera? Here's Ranker's list of artists. Paul Potts sings that famous song on Britain's Got Talent. Plus, check out albums from brother Michael Spyres. Yes, you can hear an opera-singer sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," but you probably shouldn't.

This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

Leonard Bernstein Awkwardly Turns the Screws on Tenor Jose Carreras While Recording West Side Story (1984)

What have we here?

Evidence that the Maestro is a monster?

Or a behind the scenes reminder that Arrested Development’s wannabe actor Tobias Fünke is not too far off base when he says that to make it in “this business of show, you have to have the heart of an angel and the hide... of an elephant.”

Both? Neither? Any way you slice it, the recording session above is not for your typical cast album.




West Side Story, with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, opened on Broadway in 1957.

The film, starring Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer as star-crossed lovers Maria and Tony, came along four years later.

After which it’s been an endless round of community, college, and high school productions.

Are you a Jet or a Shark?

The celebrated tenor José Carreras does not make a particularly believable Jet.

While untold numbers of white kids have attempted Puerto Rican accents to play Maria, Bernardo, Anita, and Chino, that knife has seldom cut the other way.

Perhaps a dialect coach could have transformed Carreras’ thick Spanish accent into Tony’s New York street punk vernacular, but the prep time for these September 1984 recording sessions was minimal, and not tied to any actual production.

Carreras was also, at 38, a bit long in the tooth to be tackling the part.

But what might have been deal breakers for a Broadway revival were permissible for this weeklong special event in which world-caliber artists, "whose main reason for existing,” according to Bernstein, was their singing, would be laying down the score in the studio, backed by a full orchestra.

As he told his associate and eventual biographer, classical music television presenter Humphrey Burton:

l'd always thought of West Side Story in terms of teenagers and there are no teenage opera singers, it's just a contradiction in terms. But this is a recording and people don't have to look 16, they don't have to be able to dance or act a rather difficult play eight times a week. And therefore we took this rather unorthodox step of casting number-one world-class opera singers. I suppose the only foreseeable problem was that they might sound too old—but they don't, they just sound marvelous!

Bernstein’s approving mood is nowhere in evidence in the above clip, in which he hectors Carreras for screwing up the tempo, as the instrumentalists and sound engineers squirm.

Carreras’ discomfort and chagrin is so palpable that you can find the sequence on YouTube under the title “Tenor Keeps Screwing Up while Bernstein ConductsAwkward Sequence,” as if he were some weedy upstart, still wet behind the ears, when in fact, he had just flown in from Verona, where he’d been appearing as Don José in Carmen.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Carreras’ Maria, supplied a taste of what it was like to sing for the composer:

He's a man of many emotions. You can see his moods, his frustrations, his happiness, his wanting to perform to people. That's the thing that makes the man interesting. One is constantly trying to read him, but he's on another planet!

In the end, Bernstein declared himself pleased with what had been accomplished, or at least with the enduring power of the material.

But readers with an anti-authoritarian streak may not feel satisfied until they’ve seen the clip below, in which a rogue BBC Orchestra trumpet isn’t quite so deferential in the face of the Maestro’s criticism.

Listen to the 1984 recording of West Side Story for free on Spotify.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain in New York City this April. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Hear Singers from the Metropolitan Opera Record Their Voices on Traditional Wax Cylinders

Vinyl is back in a big way.

Music lovers who booted their record collections during the compact disc’s approximately 15 year reign are scrambling to replace their old favorites, even in the age of streaming. They can’t get enough of that warm analog sound.

Can a wax cylinder revival be far behind?

A recent wax cylinder experiment by Metropolitan Opera soprano Susanna Phillips and tenor Piotr Beczala, above, suggests no. This early 20th-century technology is no more due for a comeback than the zoetrope or the steam powered vibrator.




Beczala initiated the project, curious to know how his voice would sound when captured by a Thomas Edison-era device. If it yielded a faithful reproduction, we can assume that the voice modern listeners accept as that of a great such as Enrico Caruso, whose output predated the advent of the electrical recording process, is fairly identical to the one experienced by his live audiences.

Working together with the New York Public Library’s Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound and the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, the Met was able to set up a session to find out.

The result is not without a certain ghostly appeal, but the facsimile is far from reasonable.

As Beczala told The New York Times, the technological limitations undermined his intonation, diction, or performance of the quieter passages of his selection from Verdi's Luisa Miller. In a field where craft and technique are under constant scrutiny, the existence of such a recording could be a liability, were it not intended as a curiosity from the get go.

Phillips, ear turned to the horn for playback, insisted that she wouldn't have recognized this recording of "Per Pieta" from Mozart's Così fan tutte as her own.

Learn more about wax cylinder recording technology and preservation here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Free: Download 10,000+ Master Drawings from The Morgan Library & Museum’s Online Collection

It’s hard for the casual browser to know where to begin with a collection as vast as the master drawings belonging to the Morgan Library & Museum.

The Library’s Drawings Online program gives the public free access to over 10,000 downloadable images, drawn primarily from—and in—the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries. Many images are fleshed out with inscriptions, information on provenance, biographical sketches of the artist, and, in over 2000 instances, images of the verso, or flip side of the paper.

Researchers and similarly informed seekers can browse by artist or school, but what if you don’t quite know what you want?




You could tour the highlights, or better yet, bushwhack your way into the unknown by entering a random word or phrase into the “search drawings” function.

Knowing that the internet is crazy for cats, I made that my first search term, but the results were skewed by an 18th-century Dutch artist named Jacob Cats, whose work abounds with cows and sheep.

Caricaturist Al Hirschfeld’s portrait of Kathleen Turner in the 1990 Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  is unavailable for viewing due to copyright restrictions. (It’s easily viewable elsewhere…)

And the Where’s Waldo-esque excitement I felt upon an anonymous artist’s Mountain Landscape with Italian-Style Cloister faux-Bruegel dissipated when I realized this return owed more to the abbreviation of “catalogue” than any feline lurking in the pen-and-ink trees.

Next I entered the word “babies.” I’m not sure why. There certainly were a lot of them, almost as many as I encounter on Facebook.

Returning to the pre-selected highlights page, I resolved to let the experts pick for me. I saw a charming rabbit family by John James Audubon and the old favorite by William Blake, top, but what really grabbed me was the first page's final selection: Honoré Daumier’s Two Lawyers Conversing, circa 1862.

Part of the Morgan's recently closed Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection exhibit, the subjects' dress may be archaic, but their expressions are both humorous and evergreen. Lawyer. I had my search term.

My favorite of the seven search results is illustrator Edmund J. Sullivan’s Soumin an' Roumin from 1914. One of a dozen or so drawings Sullivan made for an updated edition of George Outram's Legal and Other Lyrics, it shows "an old woman in a farmyard surrounded by livestock fleeing three monstrous lawyers wearing wigs and robes and armed with hideous talons instead of hands and feet. One … chases a cow with a scourge, the thongs of which end in scorpions.”

Download that one for all your lawyer friends or your lawyer spouse… upload it to a t-shirt if you’re crafty.

Claud Lovat Fraser’s set design for Pergolesi's short comic opera La Serva Padrona (or The Maid Turned Mistress) at the Lyric Hammersmith doesn’t depict any lawyers, to the best of my knowledge, but he himself was one—also a caricaturist, lampooning the literary and theatrical luminaries of his day, and a soldier whose life was cut short due to exposure to gas in World War I.

In addition to the Morgan’s particularly well-fleshed-out artist bio for this work, the verso is a treat in the form of a printed announcement for the Chelsea Arts Club Costume Ball.

Browse the Morgan Library & Museum’s Drawings Online in its entirety here, or narrow it down by artist, School of Art, or personal whim.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her New York City  on February 8, when she hosts Necromancers of the Public Domain, a variety show born of a single musty volume - this month: Masterpieces in Colour, Basten-Lepage. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Hear the Highest Note Sung in the 137-Year History of the Metropolitan Opera

You may have heard an A above high C the last time you accidentally stepped on your cat's tail, but it takes a combination of rigorous training, genetic luck, and sheer grit for a human to produce this note on cue.

According to all known records, the coloratura soprano, Audrey Luna, is the first such being in the Metropolitan Opera’s 137-year history to do so on its stage, an achievement that has all the opera dogs barking. Hear it in the NPR clip below.

Some purists view the rare note as a distasteful stunt on the part of composer Thomas Adès. The score of his new opera, The Exterminating Angel, based on the Luis Buñuel film, also calls for miniature 1/32-size violins, a pair of rocks, a wooden salad bowl, a door, and an ondes Martenot—an electronic instrument from 1928.

Others are bedazzled by Luna’s history-making pipes. She makes her entrance on that high A, and hits it again shortly thereafter, as Leticia, a diva who rolls up to a dinner party following a performance of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. (The title role of that one—a part Luna has played, natch—is another that demands stratospheric notes of its performers, setting records at opera houses around the world.)

See below for more of Luna’s dizzying highs, including her somewhat NSFW performance as Olympia, the mechanical doll in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann

If you're mad enough to try it yourself, please let us know how high you get in the comments below.

via NYTimes

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Brooklyn Academy of Music Puts Online 70,000 Objects Documenting the History of the Performing Arts: Download Playbills, Posters & More

Yesterday the sad news broke that The Village Voice will discontinue its print edition. Co-founded by Norman Mailer in 1955 and providing New Yorkers with savvy music writing, raunchy advice columns, juicy exposés, reviews, entertainment listings, apartments, jobs, band members, terrible roommates, and pretty much anything else one might desire every week for over half a century, the paper will be missed. Though it won’t disappear online, the loss of the street-level copy in its comfortingly familiar red plastic box marks the abrupt end of an era. Those of us inclined to mourn its passing can take some solace in the fact that so many of the city’s key cultural institutions still persist.

Prominent among them, Brooklyn’s Academy of Music, or BAM, has been at it since 1861, when it began as the home of the Philharmonic Society of Brooklyn. It has inhabited its present Beaux Arts building in Fort Greene since 1908. In its 150 years as a performance space for opera, classical, avant-garde theater, dance, and music, and film, BAM has amassed quite a collection of memorabilia. This year, on its century-and-a-half anniversary, it has made 70,000 of those artifacts available to the public in its Leon Levy Digital Archive. Like future issues of the Voice, you cannot hold these in your hand, unless you happen to be one of the museum’s curators. But “researchers—or anyone else interested,” writes The New York Times, “can create personalized collections based on specific artists, companies or eras.”

The history represented here is vast and deep, by a young country’s standards. “Every presidential candidate made campaign stops there before there was television,” says former BAM president Karen Brooks Hopkins. “Mary Todd Lincoln was in the audience during the opening week of festivities. Then you have [Rudolph] Nuryev making his first performance in the West just after he defects, [Martha] Graham performing her last performance on stage….” These landmark moments notwithstanding, BAM has earned a reputation as a home for avant-garde performance art, and the collection certainly reflects that dimension among the 40,000 artists represented.

We have further up the postcard Keith Haring designed for a 1984 Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane piece called Secret Pastures (Haring also designed the sets). We have the poster above for a 1981 performance of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha, his opera based on the life of Gandhi. And below, a poster for the 1983 world premier of Laurie Anderson’s United States: Parts I-IV. These objects come from BAM’s Next Wave Festival collection, which contains many thousands of photographs, playbills, and posters from the space’s more experimental side, many, though not all of them, downloadable.

Between the Civil War memorabilia and modernist documents, you’ll find all sorts of fascinating ephemera: photos of a very young Meryl Streep and Christopher Lloyd in a 1977 production of Happy End at the Chelsea Theater during a BAM Spring Series, or of an older Patrick Stewart in a 2008 Macbeth. Just below, we have a charming playing card featuring the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Peter Jay Sharp building in 1909, the year after it was built. It’s an imposing structure that seems like it might last forever, though much of the vibrant creative work featured year after year at BAM may someday also move entirely into digital spaces. Enter the complete BAM digital archive here.

via The New York Times/Hyperallergic

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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