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August 3, 2014

Eight hours of opera in five days: The Philip Glass Trilogy

SA Opera's staging of Philip Glass' portrait trilogy as a cycle is a world first. The ambitious production opens tomorrow, and the company's Artistic Director Timothy Sexton has us pretty much convinced that watching more than eight hours of opera in five days is a good idea.

  • Words: Farrin Foster

Philip Glass, the minimalist American composer who has written everything from symphonic scores to film soundtracks, is the cousin of Ira Glass – host of This American Life and generally amazing man.

Clearly the Glass family is one of freakish talent, and CityMag believes this information should be all the encouragement you need to go and see SA Opera’s Trilogy of works by Philip Glass. But if you’re still sceptical about sitting though more than eight hours of opera, there are some other reasons you should consider. Prominent among those is that staging the trilogy is a world first and terribly ambitious.

The first three operas written by Glass – Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and Akhnaten – are all portraits of visionary and influential thinkers, and the composer apparently intended them to be performed in cycle. However, since Glass’ completion of Akhnaten in 1983 no opera company has taken on the challenge, until now – when SA Opera’s artistic director and CEO Timothy Sexton decided to turn a venue booking problem into a mid-year opera extravaganza.

“We normally have three dates in the Festival Theatre, but we could only get two this year. So we saw that as an opportunity to do something big in the middle of the year and revisit those Philip Glass operas but present them as a trilogy,” he says.

“We’re basically doing it because we can.”


SA Opera has previously performed each of the works separately in what’s called “studio form” – a stripped back production staged mostly in-house at their space in Netley – and had intended to eventually stage a “studio form” production of the whole trilogy. Instead, an all-out version, featuring four different groups of dancers, two symphony orchestras and many, many singers – something almost as far as you can get from stripped-back – will open tomorrow at Her Majesty’s Theatre.

The premiere will represent months of work for Timothy, who conducts all three operas, his singers, and director/choreographer Leigh Warren and his dancers. But despite the long hours and the many logistical headaches of running one show comprised of three operas over five days, Timothy felt compelled to go ahead with the bold plan.

“We’re basically doing it because we can,” he says. “We’ve got the skill base in the singers. Our singers have done a lot of work and we have a very, very good chorus and the opportunity was there to do something very fantastic.

“The singers need real stamina. The works are intensely rhythmical and particularly Einstein on the Beach is relentless. It’s a singing marathon. There’s one number that goes for 19 minutes, literally without breath. There’s no gap in the music and we have 16 singers doing that and they rotate – we have at least three singers on at any one time, so they all get a break, but it is very strenuous.”

The rhythmic nature of the work might offer a hint as to why the feat of the trilogy hasn’t been attempted previously.

“Our production is actually the only one outside of the original production that has been granted permission to be performed… Philip Glass has seen the DVDs and is happy for this to be done.

Glass’ operas got progressively more accessible – Einstein on the Beach is almost entirely abstract and has been given the label of “dream play”, while Akhnaten is quite traditional in its storytelling – but the musical elements of each work remained minimalist and progressive regardless.

This has sometimes put-off audiences who fear that the name Philip Glass is pretty much equivalent to “nothing happening”, but Tim says that perception is far from the truth.

“It’s actually really well written,” he says. “It just builds with repetitive elements. There are many other composers who use repetition – Wagner used repetition, Mozart used repetition – it’s a very common technique in classical writing. It’s just that things take time to change, but they do change and they change in a fantastic way.”


SA Opera has also safeguarded against dating of the works by updating the formula for how they are staged. In the cycle Akhnaten is presented on a Tuesday evening, Eintstein on the Beach plays on a Thursday and Satyagraha is scheduled for a Saturday. Einstein is usually the most difficult to stage – with its four-and-a-half hour duration proving quite the headache and audiences normally encouraged to wander in and out of the performance.

SA Opera instead breaks the performance into two halves – with a lengthy dinner break in between, and add dynamism to the work with more happening on stage and plenty of movement from the dancers.

Einstein is probably the hardest for fast-paced contemporary audiences to cope with,” says Timothy. “This is very much the product of 40 years ago – the drug induced halo that was surrounding America then, but we’ve sort of broken it into bite sized chunks.”

“Our production is actually the only one outside of the original production that has been granted permission to be performed. We’ve taken it in a very different direction, and Philip Glass has seen the DVDs and is happy for this to be done. It’s a very different interpretation of the work – there’s much more happening. We’re doing a sort of contemporary version of this 1970s work for a 2014 audience.”

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