Houston Grand Opera Gives World Premiere of Glass’ ‘Planet 8'

Modern poets have wondered whether the world will end in fire or ice, with a bang or a whimper.

In “The Making of the Representative for Planet 8,” an outer-space world ends with a freeze and--instead of a shattering musical apotheosis a la “Tristan” or ‘Gotterdammerung"--a stately oration.

Trust a Philip Glass opera to be contrary.

Given its world premiere Friday by Houston Grand Opera, “Planet 8" has a libretto by British author Doris Lessing, based on the fourth book in her “Canopus in Argos: Archives” series of science fiction novels. A three-act, three-hour, multimedia affair, it is a bleakly somber allegory about the decay, death and spiritual transfiguration of a happy, peaceful people when their Eden is destroyed by an Ice Age.


But “Planet 8" is not a frigid equivalent of “The Towering Inferno.” And it’s not an operatic “Star Wars,” full of flashy, high-tech special effects.

Glass’ first large-scale theater piece in English is a sedate opera of ideas and metaphysical philosophizing. The characters don’t merely die of cold. They soberly debate the meaning of life, identity and spiritual evolution with Johor, an agent from the planet Canopus, whose advanced residents serve as combination guardians and gurus to the childlike Planet 8 folk. Finally, transcending their famine-withered flesh, they enter Lessing’s light-filled version of Emerson’s Over-Soul.

Attained via a grueling spiritual journey whose pace is aptly but sometimes numbingly glacial, this transfiguration is recounted not in a rapt aria but a long, lofty, murmuringly underscored speech by Doeg, Planet 8’s memory maker and keeper of records, and the teller of the opera’s tale. Though less thrillingly cathartic than an immolation (ice-olation?) scene would be, Doeg’s soliloquy is just one example of Glass’ experiments with and expansions of his operatic language.

The score is, of course, grounded in the composer’s now ultra-fashionable minimalism. But the hypnotically burbling repetition of simple musical patterns, harmonies and rhythms is here enriched by several welcome elements: fragrant flowerings of melody, subtle yet vivid orchestral colors and textures--the thoroughly conventional 42-member orchestra omits synthesizer and electric keyboard--and a fluent setting of Lessing’s prose that tellingly alternates and (in a haunting last-act trio and elsewhere) even combines singing and speech.


Unveiled in the 1,100-seat Cullen Theater in Wortham Theater Center, “Planet 8" was co-commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, English National Opera (where it opens Nov. 9), Amsterdam’s Het Muziektheater (where it bows Jan. 8) and Kiel’s Buhnen der Landeshauptstadt, where it will be presented in German beginning April 6.

The work will also be staged at Artpark in Upstate New York in June, 1989, and perhaps Dresden and Japan. Glass and Lessing are already at work on an opera based on the third novel in her “Canopus” cycle, “The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five.”

HGO’s production was superb musically, and compelling if not triumphant visually.

Designed by Eiko Ishioka (who worked with Glass on the film “Mishima”) and Minoru Terada Domberger and built in Japan, the spare scenery and kimono-like costumes gave Planet 8 and its primitive natives a mythic Ancient Nippon air.

Domberger’s none-too-sharp direction failed to inject much life into the static, conversation-filled opera. And the iceberg that smashes through the giant wall built around the planet to corral the killing cold was anticlimactically pint-sized. But the projections--boiling snow clouds, galloping rhino-like cattle, drifting asteroids, swirling snowflakes and Patricia Collins’ ever-shifting lighting--were striking and evocative.

The cast enunciated Lessing’s text with clarity, but, for maximum comprehension, the production utilized occasional amplification.

Harlan Foss sang Doeg’s comparatively forceful music with a dark, meaty, pungent but unsteady and sometimes throaty baritone. The patrician Johor--who arrives onstage in a one-passenger, Darth Vader-shaped space ship lowered slowly, standing up, from the scene loft--speaks a mellower musical language. Timothy Breese’s soft-grained baritone and liquid phrasing suited it perfectly.

Louise Edeiken’s tart, girlish soprano was well-matched to the vulnerable Alsi’s anguished musings; soprano Edrie Means sang brightly as Klin the fruit maker; and Jason Alexander’s clear tenor was heard to advantage in the role of Nonni, a young man whose promise was cut short by a fatal fall.