In this week’s Newsweek, the magazine covers composer’s choices in choosing opera subjects. In the article Einstein, Barbarians & Satyagraha are mentioned. Personally, I’ve been interested in composer’s choices for opera subjects for a long time. Frequently I would read in Opera News about how it seems that nowadays composers just seem to reach for a great novel (Gatsby, An American Tragedy, etc) and turn it into an opera. I’ve been relieved that with few exceptions Philip Glass usually chooses to start from scratch with an operatic conception. (This includes even his latest opera, Appomattox).
With 20 operas under his belt, I count very few that fit into the standard three-part dramatic form of the novel. The Cocteau Trilogy and the Lessing operas are exceptions.
Glass frequently speaks of the inspiration of collaboration, and certainly conceiving of an opera from scratch poses different challenges than translating a novel into operatic form. Considering the activity of recent years, I was intrigued by “Waiting for the Barbarians“ because of that reason: gone was the abstraction of Akhnaten or Satyagraha, and instead an obligation of music which services a traditional narrative. I was curious whether or not the extemporaneous “set pieces” of traditional opera would appear. They didn’t.
What resulted was a uniquely Glassian phenomenon. Perhaps a result of the composer’s recent hyper-activity in film, but what emerged was music that seemed to perfectly complement a form of Glass’s own version of sprechstimme. And to my surprise, it seemed to work really well. A colleague of mine noted that it sounded as if the singers in Barbarians were making (the melodies) up as they went along. His opinion changed in time and with repeated listening he came to recognize that the vocal lines, the underscore, and the drama of the opera were all on equal footing. In other words Glass’ opera language was working well in a traditional way.
This may be conjecture from the surprise of Glass composing such a traditional opera; an artist shocks by doing something un-shocking. This would be forgettable if it didn’t work so well. I found myself singing melodic fragments (“That’s all they do….find out the truth”).
Perhaps I was excited to be able to suggest to more conservative opera fans a Glass opera that was in their own language. The answers to my confusion may slowly emerge if the “Waiting for the Barbarians” finds a life of its own. Time will tell.
In the meantime, I like to imagine how I can now suggest to people the echoes of Scarpia that can be found in Colonel Joll, or how the imperfect heroicism, loosely reminds me of Rodrigue in Don Carlos. It may be a stretch, but it’s certainly closer than Gandhi as a hero in the vein of Calaf.