Tag Archives: Akhnaten
This fall has been very busy for Matthew Aucoin – LA Opera’s new artist-in-residence. Not only did he compose, conduct, curate and perform in October’s wildly popular Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (held at The Theater at Ace Hotel), he also made his LA Opera mainstage debut conducting Philip Glass’s Akhnaten. In the below excerpt of a podcast hosted by Living with A Genius’s Omar Crook, Aucoin talks about how he tackled the challenging Glass opera.
Imagine being invited by a world-renowned opera legend to move to a country where you don’t speak the language.
Would you hesitate? Or embrace the opportunity?
This is how the powerful and sonorous baritone Kihun Yoon, a native of Seoul, South Korea, answers the question.
You have two more chances to see Philip Glass’s Akhnaten – November 19 and 27. In case you’ve missed the Akhnaten love these past few weeks, we’ve collected a bunch of articles for you to check out and see why this staging of Akhnaten is a modern masterpiece.
The 2016/17 season is a big year for J’Nai Bridges. She recently made her San Francisco Opera debut as Bersi in Andrea Chenier (a role she will later reprise at Bavarian State Opera in Munich), Bridges made her LA Opera debut as Nefertiti in Philip Glass’s Akhnaten on November 5. She has become one of the most sought after mezzo-sopranos of her generation, but she didn’t always long for a career in opera.
Anthony Roth Costanzo – who just made his LA Opera debut in the title role in Akhnaten – is one of today’s foremost countertenors. Before opening night, we spoke to Costanzo about his upcoming role and his life in opera.
Many of the opera singers that comb through the halls of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion never conceived of a career in opera. Some started their careers late in life, after having an epiphany that they loved music, while others began their careers after thinking they would play professional sports. But, for soprano Summer Hassan, it’s always been singing.
“When I was six years old, my mom took me to see The Phantom of the Opera in Toronto. The music and singing thrilled me and I found myself – even at that young age – wanting to be on that stage, singing, and knowing every single thing that was going on. I wanted to part of it,” recalls Hassan. She continues, “At the time, I thought The Phantom of the Opera was an opera. It wasn’t, but there was something about the word ‘opera’ that caught my attention.”
Director Phelim McDermott’s staging of Akhnaten is anything but ordinary. By instructing the singers and cast members to move slowly through the world of Akhnaten, McDermott creates an atmosphere that is hypnotic. It’s difficult to look away from such intensity, which is not unlike the intense intimacy you get from a film close-up. He further captures the pharaoh’s world through abstract use of juggling and a set greatly influenced by ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics discovered by Egyptologists in the 1920s.
While McDermott is now comfortable in staging Philip Glass (Akhnaten is his third Glass production), directing Glass was not always on his to-do list.
In the below excerpt of a podcast hosted by Living with A Genius’s Omar Crook, McDermott discusses how he came to direct Akhnaten and his vision for the show.
There is nothing left of this glorious city of temples and palaces. The mud brick buildings have long since crumbled and little remains of the immense stone temples but the outline of their floor plans.
—from Akhnaten, the opera by Philip Glass
Like the lost kingdom of Egypt, little more than outlines remain of the glorious ancient pharaohs that ruled there. A treasure trove of precious metals and jewels, the once carefully preserved tombs—intended to last for eternity—have been looted and disturbed since antiquity. Today, we have stories that are pieced together from 7,000-year-old mummified bodies and the confusing array of artifacts and artistic renderings remaining to us. Modern technology has allowed for advancements never before imagined. CT imaging of mummies allows us to see more and destroy less and DNA testing has advanced the traces of a family tree. But there is still much we don’t know about this profoundly important African dynasty.
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.
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).
In the week leading up to the opening of Akhnaten, director Phelim McDermott watches singers rehearse a scene from Act III. In the scene, Akhnaten (Anthony Roth Costanzo) and Nefertiti (J’Nai Bridges) dwell in an insular world of their own creation with their six daughters. The only thing that connects them is a lengthy blue fabric that they all handle throughout the scene as crowds gather restlessly outside the gates and letters arrive expressing increasing concern about Akhnaten’s self-imposed isolation. From his directorial perch, McDermott suddenly rises and holds up a white sheet of paper with a single handwritten word on it: SLOWER. In response, all the singers’ movements become hauntingly slower. The adjustment is mesmerizing and in tune with the atmosphere McDermott has created for Akhnaten
For Akhnaten, McDermott utilizes the movement qualities of renowned theater practitioner Michael Chekhov. The entire opera is staged in this way with all the cast members moving slowly, exploring the narrative moment to moment, and moving through visually stunning tableaus. The simplicity and flow is meant to entrance audience members, allowing them to get lost in this tale of a revolutionary pharaoh.
Akhnaten is McDermott’s third Philip Glass production (following Satyagraha and The Perfect American at English National Opera) and the director is a proponent of playing with rhythm and movement on stage.
“Doing things slowly is the most effective way of experiencing a Philip Glass opera, because the whole piece sits on a psychological level. Singers move to express what they feel in a single moment, not unlike what they do when they have an aria and sing about what it feels like to be in love for five minutes,” says McDermott.
It seems counterintuitive to marry the minimalism of Philip Glass’ score with jugglers. But juggling is an important aspect of Phelim McDermott’s staging for Akhnaten and sets the tone for the piece. An entire troupe of jugglers – under the leadership of world-renowned Sean Gandini – perform throughout the opera. We spoke with Gandini about his juggling life (a career that includes leading Gandini Juggling for the past twenty-five years) and work his troop’s role in Akhnaten.
What drew you to juggling?
When I was a kid, I always used to juggle three or four balls for fun, and I also used to do magic. As a teenager, I performed street shows in London’s Covent Garden and I saw someone juggling five balls. I got so hypnotized that I thought, “Well, I must learn to do five.” From that moment, I got addicted – kind of like playing the piano; I loved the beautiful patterns you can create through juggling.
What inspired you to form Gandini Juggling?
I met my wife Katia Ylä-Hokkala and she had just retired as a rhythmic gymnast at the age of 19. She’d spent all her life throwing and catching clubs, balls, and ribbons and then all of a sudden they said that’s it. So, she came to London to be an au pair and we bumped into each other accidently in Covent Garden. She picked up two of the clubs that I had and started juggling them, and I said, “Oh!” Then, the gym we used to practice in had contemporary dance classes, so right from the beginning our juggling was filtered through this dance aesthetic. Our juggling also had structure – which opera and dance have a lot of – and from the beginning we wanted to be part of that world. We knew juggling could be structured like notes in a musical composition.
How did you get involved with Phelim McDermott and Akhnaten?
A lot of Akhnaten is Phelim and Tom [Pye]’s dream realized and Phelim imagined juggling in the opera. My troupe and I had experience with contemporary classical music and I was so excited when Phelim contacted me and asked if we could choreograph juggling to Philip Glass music. I told Phelim that the first recorded images of juggling are these wonderful hieroglyphics of women juggling.
While we strive for overall diversity in our casting, we have a long-standing policy of ignoring age, race and other physical characteristics when it comes to casting particular roles. Part of this is due to the complexity of casting for opera. In addition to acting ability, vocal beauty, tone and type, opera performers sing unamplified over a full symphony orchestra—an Olympian-level feat that is a combination of rare talent and years of dedication and training.
The title role of Akhnaten is particularly difficult to cast, especially in this production. It requires a very rare voice type, called a countertenor, in addition to outstanding stamina and agility—vocally and physically. Anthony Roth Costanzo was one of only two singers we found to have the skills and ability to perform the role of Akhnaten in this case, plus he comes to LA Opera having recently learned and performed it for English National Opera. Ethnicity was not a factor in our decision. While we do not cast roles according to race, we have a number people of color in Akhnaten, including in the role of Nefertiti, the queen, and another singer of Egyptian descent, among others.
We fully agree that the historical contributions of people of color have long been distorted or ignored. Not only do we wholeheartedly support all peaceful efforts to right these wrongs, we hope that in our own way we can be part of the solution. We are working toward a world where people of all backgrounds experience, as artists and audience members, the transformative power of opera.
The 2016/17 season is a big year for J’Nai Bridges. She recently made her San Francisco Opera debut as Bersi in Andrea Chenier (a role she will later reprise at Bavarian State Opera in Munich), Bridges will make her LA Opera debut as Nefertiti in Philip Glass’s Akhnaten on November 5. She has become one of the most sought after mezzo-sopranos of her generation, but she didn’t always long for a career in opera.
Bridges was well on her way to becoming a college basketball star when she discovered a passion for singing that couldn’t be ignored. She joined her high school choir, started taking private voice lessons, and eventually made the decision to become a singer.
“My parents said, ‘You just started singing classically, are you sure you want to do this?’ I told them I had this feeling in my gut and in my soul telling me I need to pursue opera” recalls Bridges.
The choice to sing opera came a little later. She recorded four songs for a pre-screening tape to apply to music schools. Surrounded by her family, Bridges heard herself on tape for the first time.
Making his company debut this season in the title role of Akhnaten is one of today’s foremost countertenors: Anthony Roth Costanzo. Akhnaten was also the role of his English National Opera debut earlier this year, in the celebrated Phelim McDermott staging that now comes to Los Angeles.
How did you discover that you were a countertenor?
I had been singing on Broadway and in theater for years as a boy soprano, but at 13 I reached a turning point: I was asked to sing Miles in The Turn of the Screw. I was immediately drawn to the depth of expression and the complexity of opera. Some of the opera crowd hanging around the production said, “your speaking voice seems to have changed and you have hair on your arm—maybe you’re a countertenor.” I had no idea what a countertenor was, but I soon found out and I’ve continued singing in the treble clef ever since.
Countertenors seem to spend their careers in two very distinct musical worlds: baroque/early music and contemporary music.
I love occupying these two ends of the spectrum simultaneously. It’s amazing how well the technique and approach required for baroque music serve the contemporary repertoire I’ve done, and similarly the openness, creativity and daring required for contemporary pieces serve the baroque. I do often dream of singing the operatic repertoire of the 19th and early 20th century, and I have found opportunities to explore some of those composers in recital and concert. While I will likely never get to sing Wagner (in public), I can say that Akhnaten is a lot closer to singing Wagner than it is to singing Handel.
One of the hallmarks of the score for Akhnaten—like much of Philip Glass’s music—is a continuous repetition of musical motives and patterns. It’s so beautiful, but it sounds really tough to learn.
The patterns are incredibly difficult to learn because they do not repeat exactly, but rather one phrase will repeat twice, alter slightly, and then repeat three more times, alter slightly again….etc., etc. At first, I thought I would make charts with letters and numbers, and memorize those charts, but the charts looked like advanced calculus, and I soon decided they would be harder to memorize than the music itself.
I finally realized that the only way to keep it all in my head was good old practice. It had to become part of my muscle memory. It took me about four months to internalize the music, but now that I have, it is euphoric to perform—even addictive. I can get into a groove with it that is unlike any other music I have performed. As fun as that groove is, it also requires a tremendous amount of focus. If I let my mind wander for a split second, I could find myself far out of sync.
Share Fall is in full swing in Los Angeles and so is LA Opera’s 16/17 season. WikiLeaks. Pharaohs. Vampires. There’s something for everyone to see. Here’s a breakdown of all LA Opera offerings over the next few months. The Source (October … Continue reading
Many opera goers may not realize how much costume design is involved in telling a production’s story. Award-winning costume designer Kevin Pollard shared some interesting tidbits about how costume creation plays a role in informing the audience and moving the story forward in this season’s Akhnaten.
Most of what the world understands about the ancient Egyptian royals is theory, based on hieroglyphics and artifacts that captured the world’s attention in the 1920s, when Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered. Pollard sought to find an innovative way of interpreting ancient Egypt while maintaining the awe of viewing a new world, never before seen. He has, through costume design, intricately woven together a simultaneous sense of history and the transition of time, as well as the struggles of both the royal family and their subjects.
Pollard’s costume design is an amalgam of worlds colliding – from ancient Egypt, to colonialism, to the present day – layered together. He began by focusing on the chorus. He started with a 1920s style but appearing partially mummified, rotted, and caked in mud and dried earth, as though the characters had been entombed for a long time. Topped with animal headdresses, depicting the ancient polytheistic gods, Pollard captures a world caught between its buried past and emerging future. The production’s jugglers tie into the same earthy feel, as the desert itself, with their color palette and fabric design representing the dry, cracked landscape.
Murray Aronson has been donating to LA Opera since the 1990s. In fact, one of his favorite LA Opera memories is seeing Plácido Domingo in Stiffelio in 1996. His life-long love for opera began long before that, in his New Jersey high school’s auditorium at an educational production of Così fan tutte. Although the singers were only accompanied by a pianist, Mr. Aronson was mesmerized. “I remember the colored lights on the stage with Mozart’s eternally beautiful music,” he recalled. “This gave me a vision of a world that can be wonderful. I was 14 years old, and that did it for me.”
Mr. Aronson has now seen close to 400 opera performances over the course of his lifetime. However, there are still a few operas he hasn’t seen performed live, like Phillip Glass’ Akhnaten, which will be performed in LA Opera’s 2016/17 season. “When the LA Opera puts on a new work, or one that is relatively rare like Norma, that gets me hook, line and sinker.”
Opera is all about love. Passionate Love. Unrequited Love. Betrayed Love. Desperate Love. You-name-it love. With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to find out what kind of opera valentine you are.
The Storybook Romantic
You’re the kind of person, who appreciates storybook romance, even if it ends in tragedy. For you, it’s all Puccini, Verdi, and Mozart all the time. You can get down with the unrequited romance just as much as you can love the fantastical loves that conquer all.
Best Opera Next Up at LAO: Madame Butterfly
The Cinema Siren
You live and breathe film and love it when opera productions are inspired by your favorite movies or film eras (or when films use or are inspired by opera). Operatic love is like a good Classic Hollywood film; whether it ends happily or tragically, the love is always spectacular.
Best Opera Next Up at LAO: The Magic Flute
We’ve finally announced the 2016/2017 season and it’s going to be a big one. There are six mainstage operas, a semi-staged concert, and stellar off-grand productions to enjoy starting September 17.
Can’t wait for the excitement to begin? Take a look below and get to know all the 16/17 season has in store for Los Angeles.
Plácido Domingo and James Conlon unite to open season with Verdi’s Macbeth
The season opens with a new production of Verdi’s Macbeth (September 17 through October 16, 2016), starring Plácido Domingo in the title role and conducted by James Conlon. Ekaterina Semenchuk will perform the role of the treacherous Lady Macbeth. LA Opera’s first production of Macbeth since 1987 will be staged by Darko Tresnjak, director of the 2015 hit The Ghosts of Versailles.