We know very little about the historical Akhnaten, the rebellious Egyptian Pharaoh of the fourteenth century B.C.E., who initiated the short-lived religious reform that came to be known as the Amarna period. In approaching tonight’s opera,we might imagine ourselves as archaeologists, examining millennia-old stellae inscriptions and sarcophagus carvings. Always, with such relics, far more is lost than is preserved. Akhnaten, like ancient history itself, embraces distances and gaps in its search for familiarity and relevance.
Almost inevitably, Akhnaten’ssense of grand historical-mythic sweep drew comparisons to Romantic opera, especially Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle. But instead of a Wagnerian libretto, which would have given dramatic dialogue to historical or mythic characters, Akhnatenmarks out its themes and historical trajectory entirely with “found texts,” conveying an estranging sense of historical distance. Excerpts from a group of religious documents traditionally called the “Pyramid Texts” set the scene for the funeral of Akhnaten’s father. Dating from nearly a thousand years before the opera is set, they convey the traditionalism of the ancient priesthood, which the newly crowned Pharaoh will soon forcibly suppress. Glass suggests this shift of power through recognizable musical tropes. The music of the old order is percussive and primitivist, suggesting an archaic tribalism from which the “purified” music of Akhnaten will emerge.
A new era is established by texts dating from the Amarna period itself, in which Akhnaten and his family overthrow the priesthood of the sun god Amon and establish a city consecrated to the “Aten,” a transcendent, ineffable deity. Glass characterizes the young Pharaoh through dramatic instrumentation. The role of Akhnaten is written for countertenor, and his singing is always accompanied by a solo trumpet, in much the same way that a string “halo” surrounds the words of Christ in J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Thus Glass marks Akhnaten apart as strange and different, befitting both his unconventional spirituality and his vast historical distance from the modern audience. Perhaps implicitly, Akhnaten’s high voice is also reminiscent of the heroic male lovers of Baroque opera, often performed by castrati (castrated adult male sopranos). The gender ambiguity implied in this connection perhaps links Akhnaten’s strangeness to a theory, contested by many scholars, that the young Pharaoh was sexually androgynous, perhaps even a hermaphrodite.
The libretto’s historical texts are sung as they were written, in the ancient languages of Akkadian, Ancient Egyptian, and biblical Hebrew. The only exception to this distancing linguistic archaism is Akhnaten’s Act II “Hymn to the Sun.” The libretto instructs that this declaration of faith, traditionally ascribed to Akhnaten himself, should be sung “in the language of the audience,” a technique Glass described as imparting a sense of sudden, intimate communion with Akhnaten’s thoughts. Following the Hymn, we hear a choral setting of the biblical text of Psalm 104, echoing its themes and drawing our attention toward an often-speculated historical connection between Akhnaten’s monotheism and that of the later Abrahamic faiths.
Several aspects of Akhnaten’s biography, especially several taboo sexual imputations, may have originated in later Egyptian sources that, following the restoration of the traditional priesthood, essentially engaged in a historical smear campaign against the usurper. Nevertheless, Akhnaten’s legacy still contains complex, even troubling aspects for modern audiences. As a monotheist, Akhnaten was both an idealist and an absolutist, and his destruction of the images and worship of the old gods was ruthless—leading us, perhaps, to see him less as a rebellious spiritual hero defying a conservative order and more as a prophet of modern religious intolerance.
Another such dilemma is played out musically at the opening of Act III. In Glass’s sharp juxtaposition of the royal family’s dreamy, wordless singing against the denunciations of the people, we might hear represented an inherent paradox in the mystical experience, whose withdrawal from everyday reality is both its blessing and its curse. Led by their spiritual imaginations, Akhnaten and his family move beyond words into a purely musical, transcendent realm, but also become increasingly insular and alienated from the very real empire that their negligence of duty allows to decay and crumble.
Glass and his collaborators on this operatic trilogy were aware of the complexity of their subjects.Einstein on the Beach, for example, presents Albert Einstein as a beacon for scientific possibility, but also puts the physicist on symbolic trial for his role in developing the theories that would make possible nuclear warfare. Five years later in its genesis, and three millennia earlier in its subject, Akhnaten is likewise a work with no simple “message.” At the opera’s conclusion, a more recent “found text”—an early twentieth-century tourist guide—further reinforces the opera’s sense of distance and ambiguity by reducing the great world-changer and his family to ghosts wandering through the ruins of their lost world.