Opera in the 20th Century

November 04, 2004

November 5: Opera and Minimalism

Posted by Charles T. Downey at 10:12 PM | Link to this post

Available at Amazon:
Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach (recorded in 1993)
Philip Glass (b. 1937), Einstein on the Beach

The opera was premiered at the Avignon Festival in 1976, in a production by Robert Wilson (see also the Watermill Center). Wilson was born in Waco, Texas, and was trained principally in painting in architecture. His interest in drama, especially in creating productions of operas and other theatrical works dominated by light, led Eugene Ionesco to label him as "America’s most important dramatist." That production was brought from France and given two blockbuster, sold-out performances at the Met, which were praised by Andrew Porter in the New York Times. It brought Glass immense fame and was the first major exposure of the minimalist style to a broad audience.

Glass has often voiced his opposition to what he characterizes as a serialist clique among contemporary composers: "There was a time when there wasn't this tremendous distance between the popular audience and concert music, and I think we’re approaching that stage again. For a long while we had this very small band of practitioners of modern music who described themselves as mathematicians, doing theoretical work that would someday be understood. I don't think anyone takes that very seriously anymore."

The opera eventually became the first part of an opera trilogy about men who changed the world through their ideas, followed by Satyagraha, on the life of Gandhi (1980), and Akhnaten, about the ancient Egyptian religious leader (1983).

Other resources:
Available at Amazon:
John Adams, Nixon in China (conducted by Edo de Waart)
John Adams (b. 1947), Nixon in China (Houston Grand Opera, 1987). The libretto was written by Alice Goodman, an American who lives in Cambridge, England, based on the actual events of President Nixon's visit to China, February 21 to 27, 1972, to meet with Mao Tse-Tung. Peter Sellars was involved as director/producer from the start and was the one who brought Adams and Goodman together. Adams wanted the libretto to be written in rhymed couplets; it was written in 1985 to 1986. Andrew Porter, reviewing the Houston premiere for The New Yorker, observed that almost all of the character's real-life counterparts could have attended the premiere (the Nixons, Dr. Kissinger, even Mrs. Mao, who was serving a prison sentence at the time, for her part in the Cultural Revolution).

Other resources:See also John Adams, Death of Klinghoffer (Brussels, 1991)The team of Adams, Goodman, and Sellars will premiere a new opera, Dr. Atomic, on the life of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, in September 2005 in San Francisco.

There is a Web site devoted to Dr. Atomic and its upcoming premiere. Thanks to Lisa Hirsch at Iron Tongue of Midnight for the link.