Akhnaten Set: From Hieroglyphics to Staged Opera

On November 5th, Akhnaten opened and audiences got a taste of the complicated set that brings ancient Egypt to life in the opera. Envisioned by set designer Tom Pye (in conjunction with director Phelim McDermott), the Akhnaten set takes 2-Dimensional hieroglyphics and brings them into 3-Dimensional staging.

A drawing of the a hieroglyphic that is the first recorded image of juggling

A drawing of the a hieroglyphic that is the first recorded image of juggling

The Funeral Scene from Act I of Akhnaten (2016); Photo: Craig T. Mathew

The Funeral Scene from Act I of Akhnaten (2016); Photo: Craig T. Mathew

The reproduced hieroglyphic image above (also the first ever recorded image of juggling) serves as the inspiration for the juggling in this opening funeral scene of Akhnaten and for the three-tiered structure that makes up the set (see second image above).

The set is modular, allowing it to separate into two wagons or pull some of the levels forward and back to frame more intimate vignettes, like the one below.

An intimate moment in Akhnaten (2016), before the restless world the title character rules closes in on him, Nefertiti, and his daughters.

An intimate moment in Akhnaten (2016), before the restless world the title character rules closes in on him, Nefertiti, and his daughters.

The above scene also illustrates the brass chamber in the third tier, stage left of the set. Usually, sets will be painted to look as if they are metallic. However, the gold and silver chambers in the Akhnaten set are made from real zinc and brass metals.

Pye and McDermott also used the 2-Dimension inspirational image below of ancient Egyptians and the Sun God (Aten) for their staging.

A picture of a hieroglyphic that inspired some of staging in Akhnaten.

A picture of a hieroglyphic that inspired some of staging in Akhnaten (2016).

After Akhnaten becomes pharaoh, he makes the Sun God the only supreme being. This is shown at the end of Act I in the scene below (a staging that draws from the hieroglyphic above). Jugglers attach gold bands that extend wooden hands from the set behind Akhnaten, appearing to shine from the sun box just upstage of him that is filled with over 700 halogen lamps. As in the hieroglyphic, the bands represent the rays of the sun.

Akhnaten 206); Photo: Craig T. Mathew

Akhnaten (2016); Photo: Craig T. Mathew

Through circles and orbs, Pye and McDermott added further dimension to their Egyptian world. The largest of these is shown below. It is giant inflatable that is externally and internally lit to resemble the sun.

Anthony Roth Costanzo as the title character in Akhnaten 2016); Photo: Craig T. Mathew

Anthony Roth Costanzo as the title character in Akhnaten (2016); Photo: Craig T. Mathew

Pulling from these hieroglyphics was just the beginning. While the entire Akhnaten set is essentially a giant cubed structure, there are so many moving parts and objects that help make the staging so dynamic. This includes other orbs and frames that fly in to emphasize key moments in the opera and brilliantly painted backdrops that appear different depending on the light shining on them. It’s a masterful set that must be seen to be fully appreciated.

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