Philip Glass’ opera “Akhnaten” has a special place in my heart. My college classmate, Colis, and I gave a presentation on this work at our Intro to Opera class. Our goal was to find the most contemporary and yet accessible opera.
Glass wrote the opera in 1983 about the Egyptian pharaoh, Akhnaten, who overthrew the polytheistic religion and sought to impose the monotheistic religion of the Aten, the Sun disk. The opera has a basic narrative of Akhnaten’s rise and fall.
This spring, I was ecstatic when I learned that Met Live in HD would broadcast this opera before Thanksgiving.
I did my work early enough so I could attend the broadcast. Unfortunately, I was late in buying a ticket and was forced to watch the broadcast from the front row. It hurt my neck to crane it upward for four hours.
The performance was powerful. Glass tells Akhnaten’s story abstractly with repeated musical motifs, actions (especially performed by the jugglers), and songs with only syllables. (Obviously, they’re speaking in ancient Egyptian, which no one understands.) A narrator helps to guide the audience through the story. The only actual song is Akhnaten’s “Hymn to the Sun” because we peek into the pharaoh’s thoughts. This song is based from Akhnaten’s actual words.
The hymn reminds me of the psalms, especially 104 about creation. But it also reflects Akhnaten’s pride in coming from the Aten and knowing all from the Aten. The psalmist always is humble before God.
In the end, Akhnaten’s bid was bound to fail. He focused on himself and isolated himself and his family from the inevitable backlash of the people. However, many rulers formed by Christianity (King Louis IX of France, Holy Roman Emperor Henry II, Queen Isabel of Portugal) would excel in morals and charity to the poor.
Do be warned that this opera is not for an opera newbie. One builds up toward it, starting with the classics. When you’re ready, attend a performance.