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Why are there jugglers in an Egyptian-themed opera? How the aerial magic of 'Akhnaten' came to be

Why are there jugglers in an Egyptian-themed opera? How the aerial magic of 'Akhnaten' came to be
Jugglers appear through the three acts of "Akhnaten," tossing, among other things, giant white balls with remarkable efficiency. (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

Before Los Angeles Opera's production of Philip Glass' "Akhnaten" opened, general director Plácido Domingo occasionally would take a break from his office at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and slip into rehearsals.

"He watches the juggling," the production's director, Phelim McDermott, said at the time.

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"With wide-eyed amazement," added conductor Matthew Aucoin.

The juggling in McDermott's new production is, indeed, hypnotizing.

Performed by the London-based Gandini Juggling company and choreographed by co-founders and artistic directors Sean Gandini and Kati Ylä-Hokkala, the rhythmic bouncing and tossing of the troupe's balls mirror the repetitive patterns of Glass' minimalist score.

Gandini Juggling performers in L.A. Opera's "Akhnaten."
Gandini Juggling performers in L.A. Opera's "Akhnaten." (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

McDermott was in the bath when he first dreamed up the idea of throwing some juggling into his staging for "Akhnaten."

"He sent me a little Facebook message saying, 'Would you be interested in choreographing some juggling for a Philip Glass opera?' " recalled Gandini, who immediately recognized historical significance in McDermott's artistic choice.

"The earliest recorded images of juggling are hieroglyphics," Gandini said. For an opera set in ancient Egypt, McDermott's bath-time inspiration was spot on.

In the opening scene of "Akhnaten," Gandini and his fellow jugglers sit upright in profile against the backdrop, mimicking the stiff posture of hieroglyphic figures. As Glass' pulsing arpeggios rise from the orchestra pit, the jugglers toss their balls into the air like ancient etchings brought to life.

"Akhnaten" star Anthony Roth Costanzo sings with a little Gandini magic overhead.
"Akhnaten" star Anthony Roth Costanzo sings with a little Gandini magic overhead. (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles Opera's 'Akhnaten'

Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday ; 2 p.m. Sunday and Nov. 27

Tickets: $49-$339 (subject to change)

Information: (213) 972-8001, www.laopera.org

Running time: 3 hours, 20 minutes

Follow The Times' arts team @culturemonster.

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