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:

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

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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