CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Wednesday was closing day for the Scholar’s Bookshop. Another favorite literary haunt is now gone from Harvard Square, where it has also become far easier to find a Rolex watch than a classical CD. But on Brattle Street, amid the upscale furniture retailers, American Repertory Theatre remains the tenant at the Loeb Drama Center, and it remains loyal to Philip Glass. “The Sound of Voice,” Wednesday night, was the fourth new Glass opera -- or fourth and fifth new operas, depending upon how you count two one-act works given under a single title -- the venturesome company has premiered in the past two decades.
Though a theater company, A.R.T. has a relationship with Glass that no American opera company can match. It understands his needs and knows the people with whom he likes to work. “The Sound of a Voice” involves several longtime Glass collaborators. The texts are early short plays with a Japanese theme by David Henry Hwang, Glass’ librettist for “1000 Airplanes on the Roof” and “Voyage.” Director (Robert Woodruff), set designer (Robert Israel), singers (Suzan Hanson, Janice Felty and Herbert and Eugene Perry) and conductor (Alan Johnson) are Glass veterans.
If anything, the concern was that the comfort zone might be too limiting for this busy and adaptable composer who certainly has no hesitation to repeat himself but who also thrives on the stimulation of new and varied collaborators. And for that he had Wu Man. The Chinese pipa player -- for whom Lou Harrison, Tan Dun and Bright Sheng have written superb concertos -- sat in the pit, one of four instrumentalists. Along with the lute-like pipa and the traditional Western flute and cello, Glass has also included a bamboo flute and percussion instruments from Asia and the Middle East.
This is the first time Glass has written for Asian instruments, and he writes as if under their unique thrall. The pipa stands out most of all, and that changes everything. Glass’ trademarks, the arpeggios and rhythmic tattoos, can’t be missed, but many passages sound as if the pipa and, to some extent, the bamboo flute, have inspired him to start all over. In exquisite solo pipa passages, Glass seems the Minimalist of his early years, but now with the full mastery of a mature composer.
Hwang’s two original plays, “The Sound of a Voice” and “House of Dreams,” are inspired by Japanese films of the ‘60s and ‘70s. In the first, a Japanese warrior visits the remote home of a woman reputed to have supernatural powers. Spare and mysterious, it is reminiscent of the cinematic ghost stories in “Kwaidan.” In the second, an elderly novelist visits a strange home where insomniac old men take sleeping potions and spend the night with equally drugged naked young women. The sex is to be in the dreams; the dreams, a portal to death.
Glass has said that he saw these plays when they were performed in New York in the 1980s and felt that they called for music. Although Hwang also counts among his sources of inspiration the erotically charged “Double Suicide” and “In the Realm of Passion,” there is a curious lack of passion in both plays. Each is an encounter by a man and woman who must overcome their preconceptions to accept their mutual attraction and extreme need. They are sad, moving stories in which death is a lover’s counselor. Words don’t suffice.
“The Sound of a Voice” is the more overtly poetic of the operas. The warrior and woman do not speak with ease. Long periods of silence are filled with solos on pipa and bamboo flute (wonderfully played by Susan Gall). Performed against an elegant set of a translucent cube hut, Herbert Perry and Hanson, both physically compelling performers, enact a slow coupling dance, he gradually succumbing to her quiet seductions. The lighting by Beverly Emmons is magical, and there are a few moments of touching humor. One cute joke is an illusion to Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach”; the woman sings numbers as if counting the beats of the rhythm as she does her washing.
“House of Dreams” is wordier, a modern roundelay, and composed more in the typical Glass style. The cello has a stronger presence here, and Asian percussion falls easily into marking Glass’ familiar rhythms. As the old novelist, Yamamoto, Eugene Perry gives a striking performance, and his physical and vocal resemblance to his twin makes for a brilliant bit of parallel casting. Yamamoto comes to the house lured by youth, but he is ultimately attracted to an old woman, graciously sung and acted by Felty. She runs the house, and she underestimates Yamamoto as much as he does her.
The surprise in both these operas is that women, so much more seemingly secure, undergo transformation along with the men. “In the House of Dreams,” that transformation is both physical and musical. Yamamoto has the old woman paint herself like a geisha as the vision he takes with him to his death. It changes her as well, as she joins him. Glass music, propulsive and deep here, moves with a graceful sureness, an ocean of chords always the same and always changing.
Woodruff is completing his first season as artistic director of A.R.T., and given his succinct yet fleetingly responsive direction of these operas, A.R.T. shows that it has a musical touch that is rare, and perhaps unique, among American theater companies.
“The Sound of a Voice” will next travel to Chicago’s Court Theatre, which is a co-presenter. In August, the SummerFest La Jolla will premiere a suite from the operas for an ensemble that includes Wu Man and the violinist Cho-Liang Lin.