Monthly Archives: November 2016
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.