- Class, Ritual, Time
The gala opening for Philip Glass’s 1983 opera, Akhnaten, at the Metropolitan Opera, was as glittering and upwardly mobile as the auditorium’s iconic sputnik chandeliers. Conceptually imagined by director Phelim McDermott, this production originated with the English National Opera at the London Coliseum in 2016, but its transatlantic arrival seemed almost prophetic, blurring the temporal boundaries between the esoteric rites of ancient Egyptian religion and the arcane social rituals of contemporary New York’s privileged elite. This Akhnaten was about the human cost of class systems that have supported economic disparity across millennia.
Glass was inspired by the story of Amenhotep IV, the Pharaoh and iconoclast who attempted to streamline ancient Egypt’s religion from polytheism to henotheism. He elevated the sun disk Aten (and simultaneously himself as its embodiment to Akhnaten, meaning “effective for Aten”), to the apex of the Egyptian pantheon. Glass wrote the opera as the final in his “portrait” trilogy, following Einstein on the Beach (1975) and the Mahatma Ghandi–inspired Satyagraha (1979), dedicated to individuals whose transformative ideas changed the world in which they lived.
The libretto of Akhnaten liberally plays with the action of transformation as time travel by switching from the past to the present, mixing languages including Akkadian and Old Testament Hebrew to the modern language of the attendant audience (English at The Met). It engages a gradual, highly repetitive, percussion-heavy score that left the audience in a trance-like state, quite pleasantly unable to glean whether ten minutes or an hour had passed. Moreover, the opera’s narrative is structured episodically, bouncing between Akhnaten’s life and the present (a science lab, a classroom, and a museum), effectively juxtaposing Akhnaten’s extravagant life with the twenty-first century. [End Page 70] Glass’s trademark minimalism (for which there is no shortage of critical musicology analyses) was the perfect vehicle for McDermott to play with the concepts of time and power. The production commenced with a diaphanous show curtain, not unlike the gauzy linen garments favored by the Egyptian elite. Through the scrim was revealed a shadowy, fever dream of silhouetted characters in rhythmic unison, high on a precipice, wearing the anthropomorphic heads of Egyptian deities artfully designed by Kevin Pollard. As the curtain lifted and the mise-enscène was slowly revealed, Tom Pye’s glittering three-tiered set of found materials appeared, symbolizing both the monolithic scale of the ancient Egyptian desire for Ozymandian permanence as well as the injustice of its class structure and the stratification of wealth. Pye’s anachronistic style for both the set and sleek projection designs of hieroglyphic symbols, including the winged sun and the eye of Horus, would have been at home in a Deco skyscraper or a contemporary Bushwick gallery show as much as in ancient Egypt. This design choice simultaneously upset the notion of time as fixed and linear while also highlighting the lasting impact of historical aesthetics after their creators were long forgotten.
Bridged by the Met’s Brutalist proscenium arch (topped by Mary Callery’s untitled 1966 sculpture that, if you squint, resembles the serpentine uraeus symbol of pharaonic crowns), the gilt, tiered auditorium extended the caste of ancient Thebes to uptown New York society, the wealthiest in the dress circle, trickling down to standing room in the far back of the auditorium. This divide of the haves and haves-less was particularly evident on gala night, where wealthy, jewel-bedecked patrons swanned to lounges for private champagne receptions, passing last-minute lottery winners who sported casual street clothing while waiting patiently for a free sip from the water cooler. Of course, this comparison is elitist at best, considering the immense majority of New York’s population could never afford the price of even the cheapest ticket.
Although over three thousand years separate Egypt’s eighteenth dynasty and the present, marked class inequality continues to be performed, particularly in the haunts of the one-percent like Lincoln Center. The arrival of Akhnaten (Anthony Roth Constanzo) was...