In 1988, at the time he was composing Itaipu, Philip Glass was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to compose a new work to to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus “discovery” of America. When asked by the New York Times about the work, Glass said that the opera would be “‘an allegorical opera in three acts telling its story using historical and fictional material about the human need to discover and explore.’’ By the time it reached the stage, “The Voyage” became an opera about “Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World” and the collision of cultures and not about the Europeans discovering a country that was already inhabited.
Since its composition, Glass’ Itaipu has been misunderstood. Glass chose the title Itaipu for his new work from the name the indigenous people of the area gave to a small island which they called “The Sounding Stone,” or variously “the creation myth of the local Guaraní Indians, for whom the Paraná River is “the place where music was born.” In their language “Itaipú” means “the singing stone” and refers to the unique sound of a loose rock that once vibrated in the rapids at this location.
In other words, the first movement Mato Grasso is about the first people arriving to the land, seeking a state of perfection. The second movement, The Lake, is about the sacred chant, especially the sacred chant of women. The third movement, The Dam, is a description of the surging waters as the center of life of the people. The fourth movement, To the Sea is a denouement as the powerful chanting of the Guaraní people fades away.
Glass set the text of the piece in the Guaraní language – putting the point of view firmly on the side of the people who were there before the construction of the dam and the modern world invaded their land. Jones says, in his notes to the first recording of Itaipu on Sony wrote “While the music itself hymns the wonders wrought by nature and by humankind, the exotic text recounts the creation of the world, the actions of the gods and how the first people came to this special place.” Jones continues that “ (Glass) marveled at the act of imagination through which humankind was transforming nature, an undertaking comparable in daring and inventiveness to the construction of the Egyptian pyramids.”
This seems an odd observation about the composer of Koyaanisqatsi (a grand indictment of humankind’s imprint on the natural world) that he would be marveling at the transformation of nature and the basic destruction of the natural environment as a good thing. For Glass, Itaipu was part of his series of “Portraits of Nature” including The Light and The Canyon (following his operatic trilogy of portrait operas based on Einstein, Gandhi, and Akhnaten). Indeed, Itaipu is often described as an “homage to the world’s largest hydroelectric dam.”
Quite wrongly, since its premiere, the piece has been viewed as a celebration of humankind and technology over nature, the exact opposite of Glass’ intention for the work. For the composer, there would be no ambiguity in the sung text in Guaraní e.g. “The waters were coming; the Incestuous Lord prayed, sang, danced; then the waters came, but the Incestuous Lord had not yet reached perfection.” Or in the movement titled “The Dam:”… “The place where our grandmother comes from is called the land of surging waters. This place is the center of the world, the center of the world of our father Papa Miri.” The work ends with a whimper, after powerful and insistent chanting of the name Itaipu (the original sacred place), the choir quiets to almost silence as the small island (the singing stone) ceases to exist.
-Richard Guérin 2019