I had been waiting for the announcement for quite some time that the Washington National Opera will be reviving Philip Glass's opera Appomattox, about the meeting between Grant and Lee at Appomattox Courthouse at the end of the American Civil War, and the legacy of race relations in America from what was decided that day.
Commissioned by David Gockley and the San Francisco Opera, Appomattox's premiere received the star treatment. The company was coming off its most successful commissioned opera with John Adams's Doctor Atomic in 2005, and a new grand opera composed by Philip Glass in a city that doesn't often hear Glass's music when it's not him performing himself, was a cause for excitement. Add to all this the fact that Glass himself was so personally connected to the material having composed so many works about social themes and growing up in Baltimore, a Southern city, that was racially segregated during Glass's youth (and to a degree remains so today).
The reviews were ultimately mixed. The composition of the opera came at a busy and intense time for Glass. This was not long after I began working for him so I recall it with clarity. The intensity of activity in Glass's creative life at this time was borderline insane. One day I was with him in the freight elevator of the building which once housed the studio at 632 Broadway, heading down to the back alley Crosby St.. I asked Glass how he kept track of musical thought when he would be working on multiple scores. He said it wasn't a concern because each piece had its own identity. In the months leading up to the delivery of the score to Appomattox, Glass had recently completed a two hour song-cycle on the poetry of Leonard Cohen which he was touring intensely, the solo cello suite Songs & Poems, and three films scores (No Reservations, Cassandra's Dream, and Animals in Love.) For the film No Reservations, directed by Scott Hicks, (whose own documentary about Glass was also produced and released at this time, captured this frenetic professional and personal style of life at this time) most of Glass's music was largely rejected, but the composer himself had already filmed a cameo which appears at the end of the film.
In the spring of 2007, right around the time I launched Glass Notes, we produced a concert in Manhattan's Lower East Side with Michael Riesman performing Glass's score to Dracula live-to-film in the very creepy Orensanz Foundation. Glass introduced Riesman that night and for a few minutes before he took the stage I discussed Appomattox with him, as he was just finishing it under great pressure as singer's needed the finished music. Glass said to me, "It's going well but I wish I had another couple of months with it." I said, "You will have a couple of months after this initial run of performances."
Appomattox is not my favorite piece. In fact, I know a few people, Glass fans, who flat out don't like it. And other than its initial run at SF Opera, the piece was done only one other time, a student production in the United Kingdom making it one of Glass's least successful pieces. A strange fate for a piece which was undertaken with such consideration. The decision for Glass to revisit a piece in this way is unprecedented.
It's not uncommon for composers who write a lot, to continue to improve on existing ideas through new pieces as a kind of personal artistic therapy: You hear strains of what would be come "Pruitt Igoe" in "A Madrigal Opera"; You hear the Tirol Piano concerto (2000) in its fully realized form screaming to be released from Etude No.8 (1994), etc. But I am unable to produce an example of Glass revisiting a piece, revising it, and adding new material in this way. I believe this new Appomattox will have up to 30-40 minutes of new material.
So there existed this motivation to make adjustments to this piece which Glass himself loved but was never totally happy with (make no mistake, there is some fantastic music in Appomattox, it's perhaps Glass's darkest opera). Glass's orchestration and coloring are very interesting in this opera. The opera is almost defined by female voices despite the opera being ostensibly about men. There was much new and exciting musically and dramatically happening in this opera but probably the biggest motivating factor for Glass to make big changes was his librettist.
Glass chose collaborator Christopher Hampton for the libretto to Appomattox because he wanted someone who wasn't American, someone without the baggage to bring something to the story that only a foreigner could. A few years later, Hampton asked Glass for permission to turn Appomattox into a stage play as Glass was the rights-holder for the story and concept of Appomattox even though Hampton was its librettist. Glass gave his blessing and saw the play when it premiered at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 2012. The thing that pushed the idea over the edge for Glass was Hampton's inclusion of Lyndon B. Johnson into the story – a figure not included in the original Glass opera. It was at that point that it all clicked for Glass. It was his eureka moment. It simply could not be that his unfinished opera could be presented ever again without the transformational figure of Johnson.
So this fall we all have a second chance to consider this opera, perhaps a flawed masterpiece. Whatever its fate, I am grateful to Washington National Opera for commissioning this revision where they could have just commissioned a totally new work. To have this subject matter presented in the nation's capital city, during a time when the country has its first African-American president and while it also has continuing racial injustice on most levels of American society.
Appomattox is an opera about race relations in the United States. It is very different in its specificity than Glass's other work on social themes. It's his American opera. More American than The Perfect American. It's also an airing of dirty laundry and perhaps that will remain it's biggest obstacle to wider performance: foreign opera companies will think it too specifically American in its subject matter. And American opera companies, perhaps like the rest of America, simply don't want to discuss these issues whether in the news, in town hall forums, or on the opera stage. Again, congratulations and thank you to the Washington National Opera and its director Francesca Zambello for the courage to present this work at this time.