Philip Cutlip as Orphée in the Portland Opera's production, November 2009.
With OMM's recording of Orphee imminent, I thought this would be a good time to talk about a piece of music from it. Glass gave an interview with Opera News right before he premiered the Voyage at the Metropolitan Opera in 1992. It's easy to see things now through the prism of Philip Glass' success of the past 40 years, but in the early 1990s is was something of a risky choice to have Glass compose an opera for the Met. Having been famous up until that point for somewhat abstract theater works the jury was out as to whether he would/could eventually fit into the main stream. We see now that not only can his music be acceptable to opera audiences, but it's also totally acceptable to main stream commercial audiences (under the right circumstances).
Much of that progression had to do with his influence. In the 1980s, everyone from John Adams, to film composers, to rock bands were listing Glass among their influences. I still think today much of Glass' latter day commercial success was simply because he got tired of others making money from producing "sound-alikes" for T.V commercials and films.
The point is that at the time of The Voyage at the Met, Glass was discovering the beauty of success for him was that he was finally able to do things that he had always wanted to do. Success allowed him to do that. One of these things was composing operas based on the works of Jean Cocteau. More than 10 years before his transformative time with Nadia Boulanger, Glass' parents sent him to Paris in the 1950s and seemingly that snapshot of France at that time made a mark on the young man. Not only was this the Paris of Cocteau, but it was also of Beckett and Genet.
It's on record that Beckett didn't care much for what Glass and Akalaitis did for his play Endgame, and to my knowledge their production of Genet's The Screens was never revived. However, this interest in French culture never subsided and Cocteau has remained strongly in Glass mind even today as he continues to tour La Belle et La Bete with his Ensemble year after year. (*keep in mind, composers need to get permission to get the rights to compose works on someone else's work. The fact that the Cocteau Estate permitted Philip Glass to compose operas from Cocteau's work was an honor in itself.)
For a glimpse at how deeply Glass considered these pieces before composing them (probably having to do with the fact that they were on his mind for 40 years before he got the chance to set pencil to paper) simply read the interview the composers gives in the liner notes to the Nonesuch release of la Belle et la Bete.
I believe these three operas to be huge milestones in Glass' career. Only a couple years earlier, 1989 saw giant monolithic works like ITAIPU which seem somewhat cut of the cloth of Glass' earlier career. I'm not saying that this was a moment of artistic crisis, but clearly with Orphée (1993), la Belle (1994) and les Enfants terribles (1996) Glass was turning a corner toward a new type of expressionism. No longer were long periods of time necessary for much to be said musically. This was lushly Romantic, emotiona, and somewhat French music. And more importantly, Glass overall work was tied to a clear and simple old-fashioned narrative.
It was a long journey to get to the point of traditional narrative and perhaps Glass felt that that was ok since so much in Cocteau is about symbolism. Musically, no longer did we have 20 minute portraits of single ideas like The Trial from Einstein, but we are treated to pieces like this musical interlude which accompanies Orphée as he travels between the real world and the underworld.
This music could be from no other piece than one of Glass' French operas. This piece is from the new recording of Orphée, the first recording of the opera, by the Portland Opera with Anne Manson conducting. More about the recording later, in the meantime, enjoy this piece: