Modern Opera Hour: Philip Glass
by Seth Colter Walls | January 23, 2014
Welcome to Modern Opera Hour, where we offer short-form guides to some of the latest trends in classical music written for the stage. This week, we're looking at some early works by a composer who arguably has changed opera more, in the last 40 years, than anyone else.
Only Philip Glass' own ensemble has ever performed his first opera, Einstein on the Beach, with any real success -- a detail that, along with the plotless nature of the work, makes it something of an outlier in the opera world (in which the idea is to let lots of different orchestras try out your music). Still, Einstein has expanded the range of musical styles that opera houses could consider representing in their season brochures. Early hardcore classical minimalism -- as heard in our playlist on Einstein tracks like "Knee Play 1" and "Night Train" -- was popular with audiences before it was popular with opera-house artistic directors. But the latter group came around pretty quickly (as these things go), setting the stage in the 1980s for the operatic career of John Adams.
With his second opera, Satyagraha, which depicts key events in the life of Gandhi, Glass pivoted from writing for his electrified ensemble to a traditional opera-house orchestra. But his hook-y knack for compelling arias survived the jump in instrumentation just fine, as you can hear on tracks like "Kuru Field of Justice," "Evening Song" and "Tolstoy Farm." (The libretto is all in Sanskrit, but you can find summaries of the opera's scenes online, if you're curious as to what's being said.) The third opera in Glass' first trilogy of stage works, Akhnaten, is also represented in our playlist. And we've thrown in a pinch of The Photographer, as well. So click play and get lost in the powerful, seemingly repetitive (but also subtly changing) riffs of Glass' first operas. Enjoy!