Unconventional Operas Under Glass : Minimalist Composer Mystifies Traditionalists

Philip Glass loves to tell this story from 1976: For the North American premiere of his first opera, “Einstein on the Beach,” the composer and his collaborator, Robert Wilson, rented the Metropolitan Opera House and offered two Sunday performances. Both performances sold out and were triumphantly received. A recording was scheduled, and Glass’ reputation was made.

None of this glory, however, paid the bills, and Glass--who had long supported himself as a plumber, a mover and a cabbie while pursuing his career as a minimalist composer in the lower Manhattan avant-garde art world--went back to driving his cab. One of his first passengers following the “Einstein” performances happened to be a wealthy Park Avenue woman on her way to the Met.

“Young man,” she remarked, noticing the driver’s ID on the dashboard, “you have the same name as a very famous composer.”

Glass no longer drives a cab nor rents opera houses. He is, some might say, now the most sought-after opera composer in the world. His most recent music-theater piece, “1000 Airplanes on the Roof,” performed by the touring Philip Glass Ensemble, reaches Los Angeles Monday, when the ensemble opens a six-performance engagement in the Wadsworth Theater in Westwood, under the auspices of the UCLA Center for the Arts.


This year alone, every one of Glass’ eight major musical theater works of the past 12 years has been produced somewhere on three continents. And last spring, almost exactly a dozen years after that “Einstein” premiere, the Metropolitan Opera announced the commission of a new opera from Glass--"The Voyage,” an opera celebrating the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of North America--to be produced in the 1992 season. The fee of $325,000 is reputed to be the largest operatic commission in history.

Glass’ success has, however, not come without controversy. Opera companies may delight in the fact that his name on the playbill will likely sell out a house, will bring lots of publicity and will attract the younger audience that the companies desperately need to ensure future support.

But Glass’ works can also mystify traditional opera-goers and the trademark arpeggios can drive musicians and listeners crazy. Glass’ opera is not the opera of Mozart or Verdi or Puccini. Or even Menotti. He plays by different rules. And few would have predicted from “Einstein,” which has so little in common with conventional opera, that Glass would ever have become so prominent a man of the traditional opera world.

Five hours long and performed without break, “Einstein” is more ritual than opera, more of Einstein than about Einstein. It is opera without proper singing, without dramatic conflict in the music and without a formal libretto.


It is opera with few texts, and those range from Arabic numerals chanted by the chorus (to help singers with the difficult metrical changes) to monologues written by the performers, such as Lucinda Childs’ quirky supermarket speech. It is an opera of images made meaningful to a receptive audience through an incessantly repetitious, ecstasy-intending music.

One of the most famous scenes in “Einstein” consisted of nothing more than a horizontal bar of brilliant fluorescent light (which represents, in the iconography of the opera, a bed, one of the work’s central images) very slowly revolving to an upright position, then drifting up and out of sight, while portentously ritualistic music played by Glass’ own ensemble treats this as a moment of profound rapture.

However unconventional, “Einstein” delivered a new audience to Glass, and it brought him a commission from Netherlands Opera for a “real” opera, an opera performable by a standard opera company’s forces.

The result, “Satyagraha,” is in many ways the true revolutionary work of Glass’ career, because for the first time Glass adapted his style to the conditions of the operatic establishment.

Like Gandhi, whose life is the subject of “Satyagraha,” Glass began his revolution in the opera world without the violent overthrow of the Establishment, as had been the path of the avant-garde.

“Satyagraha,” which consists of scenes from Gandhi’s life, is still an opera more ritual than narrative drama--the libretto is taken entirely from “Bhagavad-Gita” and sung in Sanskrit. Musically the opera follows Glass’ trademark procedure of building to a state of awe through the power of repetition--much of the score is based on ostinatos.

But “Satyagraha” is nonetheless sung opera with recognizable characters and historical context; its vocal lines are gracious to singers and it employs a standard pit orchestra. It is an opera that any company can mount, and Lyric Opera of Chicago and Seattle Opera are two American companies that have done so recently.

In 1984, Glass followed “Satyagraha” with a third portrait opera, “Akhnaten,” about the Egyptian pharaoh said to be the originator of monotheism.


With “Akhnaten,” Glass took yet another step toward traditional opera, toward opera with proper arias, opera with musically more fleshed-out characters, opera with a stronger sense of narrative. While “Akhnaten” still retains Glass’ notion that music theater is something more magical than everyday reality--this time the libretto is sung in ancient Egyptian, Akkadian and biblical Hebrew--Glass also includes spoken narration to be delivered in the language of the audience.

The three portrait operas have thus far been the major achievement of Glass’ career. They not only helped bring ideas from avant-garde music and theater into the opera house, they helped Glass--who was a founding member of the New York-based Mabou Mines theater company in the ‘60s and had worked in the theater all his professional career--define his own music-theater style.

That style can serve to express his personal social concerns about the trauma of contemporary science, civil disobedience and religious reform and conservatism. All are operas about the search for enlightenment. They are optimistic operas (even though “Akhnaten” is a tragedy) by a young composer with a vision for the world.

But, after “Akhanaten,” Glass became famous, financially well off, worldly and entered middle age--he turned 47 two months before the “Akhnaten” premiere. His operas since then have reflected these new conditions.

Following another collaboration with Wilson on “the CIVIL warS,” the composer has turned to darker subjects. With new-found dramatic security, his vision has become both global and inward, and his works have taken on darker and more psychological qualities.

Collaborating with the composer Robert Moran, Glass wrote a chamber opera based on the grimmest, scariest Grimm fairy tale, “The Juniper Tree.” With the British novelist Doris Lessing, Glass wrote a grand opera, “The Making of the Representative for Planet 8,” which Glass calls “the saddest opera I’ve ever heard,” about the freezing of a once fertile planet and the dying off of an innocent and delightful civilization.

His dark spell has also taken him to the world of Poe--the chamber opera, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and the dance score, “Descent Into the Maelstrom.”

Along with this turning inward, Glass’ musical language has had to expand.


“Representative” is almost Wagnerian in its use of orchestral color to paint aural pictures, in its ability to characterize with leitmotivs, in its grand-scaled harmonic scheme and in its philosophical themes that dig into the deepest human concerns.

Glass’ use of repetition in “Representative” has also become more sophisticated. No longer does he use the device as trance-inducing; it now serves a more psychological function of creating and fulfilling expectations. And while each Glass opera or musical-theater work strives toward a transcendence of worldly problems, the transcendence is harder won and more existential than it is in Glass’ portrait operas. In “Representative” transcendence exists only in the universal consciousness, the memory of Planet 8.

“1000 Airplanes on the Roof,” perhaps Glass’ most psychological work of all, is also a part of the composer’s concern with dark forces. A 90-minute monologue for actorand Glass’ ensemble, it is a work of musical drama that falls somewhere between Glass’ operas and the scores of incidental music he has written for theater and film.

“Airplane” is a work that takes place entirely inside a single character’s mind, a mind taken over by aliens from a UFO, and in it Glass has written his most narrative work yet and some of his most characterful and varied music. But, in this work, whose real subject is memory, Glass has almost come full circle, eschewing singing for the spoken word and creating music theater, for the first time since “Einstein,” for his own ensemble rather than for outside forces.

While “Airplane” is even more haunted than “Usher” and as terrifying and personal as anything Glass has written, it also appears to be Glass’ way out of moonlight and back--although now, one suspects, with greater depth--to sunnier climes.

For Paris next year, Glass will again collaborate with Wilson, whose work has become increasingly sensual since “Einstein,” on a new project, “Tales From the Arabian Nights.” He also has in the works another opera to a libretto by Lessing, but this time a celebratory one, “The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five.”

And the Met commission promises to be a grand opera not just about Columbus but about the whole subject of discovery. But, then, discovery is really what all of Glass’ operas are about--and it is this shared process of discovery that has made them as important as they are to so many people.