glass notes
Magnum Opus – Philip Glass’s Appomattox

It was with much anticipation that I headed down to Washington DC this weekend to see the premiere of Appomattox 2.0 at the Washington National Opera and to echo Anne Midgette's review in the Washington Post, I harbor feelings of wanting to go see the piece again.

This is a big personal departure for me because the original version of Appomattox was, despite its noble intentions, never a fully realized piece and it didn't excite me very much.  I recall the horrifically short period for which Glass had only a number of weeks to compose the whole opera.  While the normal sequence for writing an opera for Glass includes years of gestation and idea-forming – with the actual composition of the music not necessarily taking a huge amount of time – Appomattox is a unique creation in many ways.

In the spring of 2007 I had a moment with Glass after he had just delivered the finished opera to the San Francisco Opera.  At that time the composer expressed a wish for more time to work on it.  Unlike any other opera, symphony, or chamber work Appomattox is significant for being the only piece I can think of which was subject to a wholesale overhaul from a composer who almost never looks backwards. 

When I say revision, I mean revision.  One of the many thoughts I had when leaving the opera on Saturday was that I wondered if the authors considered changing the name of the opera because it had changed so much.  The old piece clearly had more to do now that the meeting between Grant and Lee at Appomattox court house at the end of the war than being a single word title which evoked the history of race in America.

I have known Appomattox 1.0 for 8 years now.  I have come to know its drama, its pacing, and its music inside and out.  Admittedly, Appomattox 1.0 does have issues.  While I think it's a quality opera, it is somewhat misshapen with a fully realized first act and a somewhat convoluted second perhaps owing to the lack of time to compose it. 

So right off the bat on Saturday night I noticed the opera no longer began with women's voices singing about the sorrows of war in a beginning, it had been very close to that of Satyagraha – voice and then slow minor key ostinati.  Now the opera opens with a "colored" regiment singing the "Tenting On the Old Campground" traditional.  Glass original choice of using women at the outset had to do with his remembrances of growing up during the Second World War – as was so often the case in war, with all the men gone the women are left holding the bag, left with the task of keeping the world functioning.

In this new opening with the soldiers, a number originally found in the middle of Act 1, we now start off with the opera's real primary subject – that of the legacy of race in America.  From here we move then to the women singing a long sequence about how so much blood has been drained during these four years of the war and hopes that this will be the last time.  This is followed with a new scene of Frederick Douglass meeting Lincoln after his second inauguration responding to Lincoln's question about his hopes for the country after the war ends.  Douglass's hope is for the vote for all men of color (note, not women – that too, is later addressed in dialogue). 

The opera builds, layer upon layer with history and issues which haunt us to this day.  Each scene spawns more interesting episodes and rich theatrical material.  If there was a danger inherent here it's that there are too many issues and too many characters to ever really address in one evening.  The magic of the theater is that not only can the drama move forward without succumbing to the weight of it all, and only music has the real power to make it all propel forward without collapsing under its own weight.  This, is perhaps the small miracle of Appomattox 2.0, that Glass's score draws us in – keeps us there – and carries us through these two gigantic conceptual acts.  Inasmuch, this is perhaps one of Glass's most impressive scores.

In a way, Appomattox is an opera, in both its forms, about text. Christopher Hampton's masterfully crafted libretto is every bit as impressive as Glass's 500 pages of score.  The task of the composer is to do something with all that text and scenario, to make sense of it, to imbue it with that magic.  Act 1 is largely set in 1865 at the end of the American Civil War with the exception of the last scene of Act 1 in which T. Morris Chester – an African American journalist whom we first meet in a scene at Appomattox Courthouse when Chester is optimistic that now that the war is over, the fortunes and destinies of African Americans is going to change for the better.  The last scene of Act 1 is a solo for Chester in which enough time has passed for us (and Chester) to understand that his optimism had been misplaced.

The great contrast in this new version is the entirety of Act 2.  The older music which largely comprises Act 1 is much more dour, more black-and-white and antique sound than the vibrant color to be found in Act 2.  It is true that a main characteristic of the whole new score is Glass highlighting melodic content within the orchestration. Over this past decade Glass has moved further into a Romantic musical language that relies more on orchestral variety and detail.  This is on full display in Act 2 with more traditional tunes arranged by Glass which serve as signposts of American identity. Their presence ushers in moments of lighter musical language, 'good old tunes' which most American audience would know.  I think their inclusion was a stroke of genius.   Add to these Glass's own settings of well known texts and Glass's established and ubiquitous sound which nowadays forms a part of a universal musical vernacular and the whole tapestry of Appomattox begins to feel very familiar. 

This seems to me like something that couldn't have been done before. What I mean by that is that I don't think that Glass could have composed this piece at any time in the past. Subject matter and new developments aside, I don't feel that he even could have or been prepared to do it. 

The same thing goes for the audience.  Over 40 years Glass has earned our attention on this scale and duration.  As constant listeners we are willing to go along for this  long journey precisely because of an artistic trust he has built up.  For those willing to go on that journey, it's one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had in any theater.

The cast demands are huge including 13 principals (many of them doubling) and more than one chorus.  The forces in this case were all wrangled by Maestro Dante Santiago Anzolini.  Anzolini is one of those conductors that for anyone with a modicum of musical knowledge, every gesture is a clear direction. The conductor breathes with his singers and was on top of every cue and every balance.  This is a gigantic score and in comments before the opera Glass said he had asked Anzolini (who not a month before conducted Akhnaten in Turin) to jump in on very short notice for an injured Dennis Russell Davies and Anzolini agreed.   Then laughing, Glass said that after Anzolini agreed that Glass hadn't mentioned that the score was an (uncorrected) 500 pages of very complicated new music.

For me, a constant Glass listener, this all added up to something very interesting.  The takeaway of the new Appomattox is such a rich and profound commentary on the American trajectory through the past 150 years, resting in an overwhelmingly opulently well-informed and elegant libretto, that only a composer who has spent a life in the theater and opera house could even attempt to make sense of it. Particularly in Act 2, with the hilarious Texan patois of Lyndon B. Johnson, that Glass managed to elevate into something palatable (the biggest and well-needed laughs of the night), I found the essence of the identity of the whole piece.  Glass corralled the stories of dozens of primary participants of this important American history and coalesced them, pulled them by force into an intriguing narrative flow. 

By force of sheer will, like a weight-lifter lifting up the 400lb. weight of race relations in American History into the light for all the world to see, and by seeing we are able to see that history for what it actually is: a shameful goddamn mess. 

The recent assaults on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as well as the recent racial strife in the country show that, despite disavowal in many corners of the United States, that the shame continues.  Some think that all the big proactive work has been done in the name of race relations in the USA. Some think too much was done and it's better left alone.  Some factions simply don't care.  Appomattox is Philip Glass and Christopher Hampton, screaming from the top of voices that you should care, and there are a million reasons why.

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