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 Times‘ critic 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.

Related Content:

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Watch Klaus Nomi Debut His New Wave Vaudeville Show: The Birth of the Opera-Singing Space Alien (1978)

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

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

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.


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