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.
“The music for Akhnaten sounds like what’s going on in the character’s heads. There’s a moment when Akhnaten comes down the stairs and thinks, ‘I’m going to turn now.’ You hear in the music what he’s thinking as he’s turning. Every moment is heightened. If you did these actions in real time, it wouldn’t make sense and affect you emotionally as much,” explains McDermott. In that way, having singers move slowly gives audience members the same effect they get from an intense close-up in a film. It’s intimate and impossible to look away.
The singers are not the only cast members moving slowly in search of the beauty found in a single moment of being present. The whole cast – including a team of jugglers – are also moving slowly to emphasize the dream-like atmosphere McDermott has created. The jugglers (led by the renowned Sean Gandini) express the thoughts and feelings of the character. During one particularly intense moment, Akhnaten reaches up into the heavens as if screaming. Instead of crying out, the audience witnesses his anguish through the jugglers’ movements. They throw large orbs into the air and let them crash to the floor, reflecting Akhnaten’s mental state. Of course, this action all happens as slowly as possible, which makes the moment even more effective.
McDermott’s vision for Akhnaten is to make it dreamlike. He has styled his production to look as if you are witnessing it through a lens, seeing ancient Egypt through the eyes of the Egyptologists who became famous for digging up tombs in the 1920s. He focuses more on creating an atmosphere than creating a world that’s naturalistic.
“Whatever we created needed to be authentic to itself. We can’t know what Akhnaten’s ancient Egypt was like. We don’t know how the language was spoken. We don’t know what that language was like which Philip Glass set to music. If you create a world that’s atmospherically believable, you’re tackling the story on a deeper level and might tap into something real,” McDermott explains.
The beauty of taking things slowly is something that McDermott hopes audiences see and feel during and after watching Akhnaten.
“You can’t watch Philip Glass’s work and not lose something of yourself. I think sometimes you’ve had an extraordinary dream. You have a big dream and you wake up with a strong feeling after it that sticks with you. If someone’s had a good experience of a Philip Glass opera, it should feel like that.”
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