Akhnaten: Of Gods and Men

LA Opera composer Philip Glass, director Phelim McDermott, and conductor Matthew Aucoin masterfully craft the tale of ancient Egypt’s enigmatic pharaoh

LA Opera’s production of Akhnaten is what arises when opera’s notable innovators come together. Featuring the acclaimed score of composer Philip Glass, the three-act opera is staged by renowned director Phelim McDermott and conducted by 26-year-old wunderkind Matthew Aucoin. The trio’s talents play out beautifully onstage through the story of a newly crowned Egyptian pharaoh with a bold directive for his people: forsake all gods save for one — the Sun God. Yet with so much flair and inspiration on the LA Opera stage, how we can we admire just one entity?

Akhnaten is the final installation in Glass’ trilogy of operas about men who have changed the world through ideas — Albert Einstein through science in Einstein on the Beach, Mahatma Gandhi through politics in Satyagraha, and Akhnaten (aka Amenhotep IV) through religion. Upon ascending to the throne along with his bride Nefertiti, the pharaoh decrees Egypt shall follow a monotheistic (one God) religion. Akhnaten’s vision for a new faith and society ultimately leads to his violent overthrow and death.

Set design (Act 2, scene 3) by Tom Pye
Set design (Act 2, scene 3) by Tom Pye

Image courtesy LA Opera

Glass, who has composed more than 20 operas, created a riveting score that goes beyond the minimalistic style attributed to him, reflecting absolute passion with fervent rhythms and intense choral harmonies. A collaboration between Glass, Shalom Goldman, Robert Israel, and Richard Riddell, Akhnaten was originally conceived in 1983 and had its world premiere at Germany’s Stuttgart State Opera the following March.

Vocal text, drawn from original sources by Goldman, is sung in multiple languages including Ancient Egyptian, Akkadian, Biblical Hebrew, and English. Indeed, myriad elements of the production—from story and rituals to staging—transport the audience to another culture, time, and place.

Meanwhile, Aucoin’s brilliant conducting evokes the main subject’s intensity, penetrating audience members’ hearts and minds. As LA Opera’s artist-in-residence, a position created for him, Aucoin has a three-year tenure that promises even more passion ahead: in the 2017-18 season he’ll conduct two productions, including one of his own operas, and the 2019-20 season will see the world premiere of a new piece from Aucoin commissioned by the LA Opera.

Akhnaten is a new co-production between the LA Opera and English National Opera (ENO). McDermott, who has also staged Glass’s Satyagraha for ENO and The Perfect American for Teatro Real in Madrid, directs a stellar cast. Reprising the title role he performed for ENO is countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo. By his side, mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges plays wife Nefertiti, with soprano Stacey Tappan in the role of Akhnaten’s mother, Queen Tye.

Given a glimpse of present day religious beliefs, the opera concludes with a lasting thought: despite Akhnaten’s downfall, his philosophies will live to rise another day.

Akhnaten offers audiences six opportunities to catch performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion: November 5, 10, 17, and 19 at 7:30 p.m.; November 13 and 27 at 2 p.m.