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How Philip Glass turns the circus into opera that’s magical and profound

People stand under a tent looking up at a man in the air
Acrobats perform under the big top set up on the Malmo Opera stage for “Circus Days and Nights.”
(Mats Backer)

A drum beats. An accordion joins in, like the music of a clown. A trombone further adds a circusy effect. A bearded lady, aerial acrobat, juggler, lion tamer and trapeze artist all materialize under the big top.

For the record:

4:56 PM, Jun. 07, 2021An earlier version of this article misspelled Cirkus Cirkör’s name as Cirkus Crikör.

“Circus Days and Nights,” Philip Glass’ latest opera, is having its premiere by Malmö Opera through June 13 in a livestreamed co-production with the Swedish city’s Cirkus Cirkör. The libretto is by David Henry Hwang, who based it on the autobiographical circus poetry of Robert Lax.

This is thought to be the first opera written for a circus. Circuses do, however, show up in operas from time to time, mainly as a portent of nasty business. “I Pagliacci” and “Lulu” come to mind. I can’t help but further associate Swedish circuses with the lice-infested, disease-ridden one in Ingmar Bergman’s “Sawdust and Tinsel,” so memorable is his 1953 film. Ever ready to upend conventional mores, one manifestation after another of the irreverent Pierrot pops up with unavoidable regularity on the modern lyric stage.

Then again, ever since his first opera, “Einstein on the Beach,” 45 years ago, Glass has been upending opera on a reliable basis (averaging a new opera every 18 months or so). “Circus Days and Nights,” which miraculously elevates the circus to godliness, brings him full circle.

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This “Circus” is free in its associations with our time. Glass long ago licensed Lax’s circus poetry. The composer’s collaboration with Cirkus Cirkör, which commissioned the opera, well predates the pandemic. The magical score, discerning libretto and enchanting production do not specifically bespeak timeliness or autobiography. Yet embedded in all this is a guide to how we can best put one post-pandemic foot in front of the next to ensure our and our planet’s survival.

The revelation of “Circus Days and Nights” is existentially simple and direct. Cut through a thin layer of tawdriness and cheap tinsel that may be on its surface, and you discover that a circus can exist only thanks to absolute trust. The life of every acrobat lies in unerring balance. Balance is the religion of circus life. Trust and balance, of course, are the two essential things our polarized societies need to regain.

“Circus Days and Nights” is the Glass method for how that can be done. All and all, the past year has been a time of Glass lost and Glass found, the first time a peripatetic composer stopped in his tracks. But his infinitely adaptable music that so easily captures the moods of the times — melancholic or merry, and all points in between — has nonetheless provided a pandemic soundtrack from just about everywhere. New recordings have come along: Of particular value are the recent Piano Sonata, written for and performed by Maki Namekawa (which also got a lovely, streamed performance by the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA), and a superb recording of parts of the soundtrack to the film “Mishima,” performed by violinist Pekka Kuusisto.

Glass operas have been everywhere. The Metropolitan Opera’s nightly streams have included “Satyagraha” and “Akhnaten.” Opéra Nice Côte d’Azur has posted Lucinda Childs’ luminous new virtual production of “Akhnaten” on YouTube. A week before the “Circus” premiere, Long Beach Opera mounted Glass’ Cocteau opera, “Les Enfants Terribles,” atop a shopping center garage; it was excellently performed and despite a futile attempt at layering angst, it had more substance than the silly new Eisenhower-era production that Hungarian State Opera in Budapest streamed months earlier.

The best Glass has been archival high-quality films from the composer’s own festival in Big Sur, Days and Nights (now we know where its name comes from). Among the offerings are “Whistleblower,” a startling off-kilter look at the art of surveillance (CAP UCLA had to cancel it during lockdown), and an elegantly unsettling “Godot”-esque pocket opera, “Drowning,” which opens with a heartwarming ode to the print newspaper.

But nothing has matched the profound amalgamation of eloquence and entertainment found in “Circus Days and Nights.” In the opera, an old Lax, sung by a baritone, ponders his younger circus-fixated self, sung by a soprano, with wise bemusement. The circus comes to town as an engine of wonder. Lax likens it to the Genesis, an act of celestial creation.

In his libretto, Hwang begins where Lax does, with the line: “Sometimes we go on a search/and do not know what we are looking for,/until we come again to our beginning.” Whether conscious or not (and I suspect not), Glass goes back to his beginnings.

Two people dress alike thumb through small green books.
Philip Glass’ “Circus Days and Nights,” livestreaming this month through Malmo Opera.
(Mats Backer)

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The circus tinge to Glass’ score, which is written for a small ensemble and a dramatic accordionist, Minna Weulander, brings to mind the composer’s early studies with French composer Darius Milhaud, and especially Milhaud’s popular surrealist Cocteau ballet score, “Le Boeuf sur le Toit” (The Ox on the Roof). The Paris premiere featured circus clowns.

Glass also notably references his operatic start. Like “Einstein on the Beach,” an opera in the form of cycles, there is no real drama, just, in this case, a deepening insight into the meaning of the circus and its representation of life as repeating cycles. The opera ends where it begins, with the opening lines. Just as the circus pulls up tent, moves on and begins again.

“The traveling circus is always in motion, even when it seems to be standing still,” is another of Lax’s memorable lines that finds its way into Hwang’s libretto. The opposite is also true with Glass’ late-style music. There are parts of the new score that sound remarkably fresh, and there are patches of note-spinning, the noodling he has done a million times.

This is no place to dismiss the noodling, as it too often has been dismissed. It accompanies circus acts and operates on the level of necessary trust and love. It trusts that music need distract neither performer in a great acrobatic or juggling act nor the audience. Everyone and everything in a circus is useful and necessary.

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On the other hand, several aspects of the Glass score sound new and original. The opening is a knockout. A trombone solo in the second act dazzles. Instrumental combinations are boldly colored. A ballerina walks on the heads of acrobats while mysterious vocalise from an ethereal soprano seems to lift her in the air.

Again like “Einstein,” this is an opera of choreographed movement. It can’t be a coincidence that when the young Lax removes her suit coat, she is wearing a white shirt and suspenders looking very much like the Einsteins in the original Robert Wilson production.

Also Wilsonian is the light, seemingly effortless touch of “Circus.” A wedding of spirit and flesh, in which neither leads, is, we learn, what a circus performer must realize. When attempting to balance body, soul and mind, if you try to hold on, you fall. The circus achieves everything through grace.

Coronavirus may have silenced our symphony halls, taking away the essential communal experience of the concert as we know it, but The Times invites you to join us on a different kind of shared journey: a new series on listening.

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The first art of the circus is the art of preparation, and the magic of Cirkus Cirkör is preparation. The company’s acts have been refined and refined. Having turned 84 and having written at least 30 operas (how you count depends on what you chose to call an opera), Glass has refined and refined his technique. Lax’s poetry, not as well-known as it should be, is the soul refinement, the poet a paragon of simplifying life to its essence.

Malmö Opera captures all that. The performers, from circus and opera, are superb, the two art forms functioning as a piece. Swedish COVID-19 regulations allow an audience of only 50, but it’s still an audience. Unlike other opera companies, which typically stream one performance and then archive it, each performance from Malmö is a livestream (a reasonable $12), so every night (in L.A. it will be morning when you watch) will be different. The first performance Saturday had technical glitches, the second, on Tuesday, went smoothly.

Every night has room for the unexpected. From wherever we watch, we as an audience must know “Circus Days and Nights” is not just about whom to trust, but how.


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