Monday, December 3, 2007


Regardless of the varying quality of his artistic product, there can be little doubt that Philip Glass has become the most prolific operatic composer of our time. As he pumps out two or three operas per season, some music lovers go so far as to liken him to Rossini; a musical force whose sheer speed and volume of production (plus a solid penchant for hype) is bound to keep him in the public eye.

This year, Glass has enjoyed a series of important premieres within a very short period of time. First, came the film score for Powaqatsi, followed by the joint unveiling (by Boston's American Repertory Theatre and Louisville's Kentucky Opera) of a new work based on the Fall of the House of Usher. Shortly after the Houston Grand Opera premiered Glass's The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, another of the composer's music theatre works, 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, premiered in Austria. Airplanes will make its U.S. debut this month at Philadelphia's American Music Theatre Festival while Glass basks in the triumph of having been commissioned by the Met to compose The Voyage for its 1992 season.


In July, the composer's biggest operatic success, Satyagraha, received a splendid production from the Seattle Opera. This work (which, under Lotfi Mansouri's artistic leadership, may be performed by the San Francisco Opera within the next five seasons) offers audiences a highly dramatic series of tableaux vivants depicting Gandhi's role in the creation of the passive resistance movement. It is an opera of extreme theatricality (aided immeasurably by Richard Riddell's lighting) which is, perhaps, the most choral and most dramatically effective of Glass's vocal efforts.

When I saw Satyagraha last fall at the Lyric Opera of Chicago (which owns this production), I was extremely touched by Act II's relevance to the current situation regarding AIDS testing. None of the work's impact becomes diminished upon subsequent exposure and that is, I suppose, the measure of a great piece of art. Using the sets and costumes designed by Robert Israel for David Poutney's original concept, director Harry Silverstein staged Satyagraha most effectively in Seattle. Silverstein received an extra measure of help from Bruce Ferden's animatedly propulsive conducting (Ferden conducted the opera at its 1980 world premiere in Rotterdam). Although tenor Doug Perry repeated his portrayal of Mohandas Gandhi (backed by an ensemble of principals featuring Claudia Cummings, Shirley Harned, Joan Gibbons, Patryk Wroblewski, Henry Runey and Pamela Laurent) this event was really a triumph for the Seattle Opera chorus, which outdid any and all of its previous efforts.

What was most encouraging in Seattle was to see an audience which, in addition to responding enthusiastically to contemporary music, evidenced a much lower median age than what one sees in many other opera houses across the nation. General Director Speight Jenkins claims that, in many ways, the Seattle Opera has become the total opposite of a national trend which insists that opera attendance is down by 23%. "One of my best reasons for signing another five-year contract is that I am so gratified by the drop in our audience's age. That means we're finally reaching the people who we've wanted to attract to opera!"

While there can be no denying the enthusiasm for the production I saw in Seattle, since composing Satyagraha, Glass has proven himself to be an alarmingly unsteady composer. Although he can pump out music with a vengeance, the power of his pump varies wildly. Works like Satyagraha and Akhnaten reveal a fascinating sound concept articulated by a composer with a distinct voice of his own. Other compositions, however, are often so blazingly insipid, staggeringly monotonous and totally bereft of musical inspiration that one feels a profound sense of embarrassment for the composer. Perhaps Philip Glass is to opera what Vanna White is to the Shakespearean tradition of acting!

Although one frequently wishes to ask Glass if the most minimal results of his minimalistic style are, in effect, nothing at all, the mystery of his popular appeal is that, for better or worse, the composer's music remains lodged in one's mind for several days after a performance. Is this thanks to Glass's skill as a composer? Or the depth of his message? Or is it simply due to the fact that, like Jerry Herman, Glass knows enough to repeat a string of notes ad nauseam until it becomes imprinted on a listener's mind like some advertising jingle for dog food?


Glass's creative limitations became frighteningly apparent during the gestation of The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, a science fiction music theatre piece co-commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, English National Opera, Amsterdam Music Theatre and Kiel Opera House. Planet 8 was one opera which started on a downer and had nowhere to go but up. Unfortunately, it chose to go further down, instead. Five minutes into the evening (when news arrived that Planet 8 would soon freeze over, causing its inhabitants to perish) any sense of dramatic tension evaporated into thin air. At various times during the performance the orchestra would come to a sudden and complete halt and then pick up the sound again as the composer began experimenting with another chord (do these orchestral breaks signify the start of a new work day in Glass's studio?).

During those moments when, thanks to the use of a sophisticated sound system, Planet 8's libretto could actually be understood, Doris Lessing's words lacked sufficient dramatic power to make much of an impact. If anything, they sounded like the kind of comic book prose that even Batman and Lex Luthor would disdain. Lessing's and Glass's efforts were in no way helped by the total lack of stagecraft on the part of director Minoru Terada Domberger (who left his cast and chorus wandering aimlessly about in time and space while searching for the life-giving blue flower). Despite some interesting designs by Domberger and his colleague, Eiko Ishioka, Planet 8, in a curiously perverse way, made Saturday morning segments of The Smurfs seem deeply meaningful.

If one were to strip away the theatrical gimmicks used in Planet 8 (the giant spacecraft/robot flown in at the beginning of Act I, the filmed cloud sequences which looked as if they had been borrowed from Koyannisqatsi, and Doeg's long, spoken monologue, accompanied by an unending series of broken chords, which concluded the opera) one would be left with the nagging impression that, like Gertrude Stein's famous description of Oakland, "there was no there there."

I suppose the real kick in the pants is that the Houston audience embraced Planet 8 with such surprising enthusiasm. Performances consistently sold out (no doubt due to the success of HGO's clever posters) and, instead of walking out in droves, people sat attentively through each performance, claiming that they were trying to "tune in" to the opera's "message."

During rehearsals for Planet 8, a conductor remarked to me that Glass's skills at orchestration seemed to be growing by leaps and bounds. My own feeling (that the composer had discovered two new chords and a horn) was reinforced when, several weeks later, I attended the Santa Fe Opera's production of Feuersnot (a one-act opera written by the young Richard Strauss). At that point I became painfully aware of how much stronger Strauss's skills were, how much more his talent had to say, and how much more adroitly he showcased his artistic product with a complexity of sound and fury that -- even when assisted computers, synthesizers and a host of electronic toys -- Philip Glass could not begin to approach.

Therefore, despite Glass's unprecedented commercial success, my experience with Planet 8 warns me that we're dealing with a case of the Emperor's new clothes in which extensive media hype seems to have clouded many people's vision. At its worst, this alarming phenomenon signifies that the man who took minimalism past Muzak (and went on to achieve frightening new extremes in artistic vapidity) has finally hooked into the market segment which can truly appreciate his accomplishments.

It seems like a marriage made in heaven, heaven, heaven, heaven, heaven. Or Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell. Oh, Dolly? Dolly? Dolly? Dolly? Dolly?

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on September 15, 1988.

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