State Opera’s $1.7m trilogy is risky business

Jul 28, 2014
A scene from Einstein on the Beach, part of the Philip Glass Trilogy presented by the State Opera of South Australia. Photo Darren Williams

A scene from Einstein on the Beach, part of the Philip Glass Trilogy presented by the State Opera of South Australia. Photo Darren Williams

The Philip Glass Trilogy is a big risk for the State Opera of South Australia.

The biggest SOSA production since Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 2004, the work is costing $1.7 million to produce and has involved some 400 hours of rehearsals.

Opening tomorrow at Her Majesty’s Theatre, it features 140 performers – 75 musicians from the Adelaide Symphony and the Adelaide Art orchestras, 34 singers from the State Opera Chorus, and 15 dancers from Leigh Warren Dance and AC Arts Dance Ensemble.

“It’s a huge financial risk,” says State Opera CEO and artistic director Tim Sexton, who has been working 18-hour days to ensure everything comes together on the night.

“But it fits our charter; it’s what we do. While others tighten their belts, State Opera has always been a company that makes a splash when things are tight.”

For Sexton, however, the Philip Glass Trilogy isn’t just about making a statement. State Opera has performed all three operas – Akhnaten, Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha – previously as separate, smaller-scale productions, so it’s more about the development of these works and programming.

“Why do you choose to climb Mt Everest? Because it’s there,” says Sexton. “For me – and for SOSA – the Trilogy was unfinished business. We always thought we would stage the three works as a trilogy one day, but the idea was put on the back burner until now.”

Philip Glass 2 - use thisPhilip Glass is a prolific contemporary American composer who is considered “one of the most influential music makers of the late 20th century”. His pieces include opera, musical theatre, symphonies, concertos, solo works, chamber music and film scores.

“I think it’s interesting looking at artistic programming around Australia, particularly when money is an issue,” says Sexton. “With opera people presume you’re talking about composers that are dead, so for opera to stay as a living art form you need to present operas by living composers so their messages resonate with society now.

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“If we just programmed works by composers who died 100 years ago we would kill off our sector, there would be no growth; opera would become a museum art form. Different music and different voices need to be heard to further the art form.

“Cloudstreet is an example of new operatic work currently in development that needs to be trialled – it comes at huge risk, but it’s a risk that is necessary to remind people that opera is still being written.”

Sexton says that Glass wrote the three biographical operas in the Philip Glass Trilogy with a common theme about men who changed the world through the power of ideas – Akhnaten through religion, Einstein with science and Gandi (Satyagraha) through politics.

“By the time Glass had finished the third one, Akhnaten (in 1983), he realised they should be run as a trilogy. The Adelaide premiere of the Philip Glass Trilogy will be the first time these productions, directed and choreographed by Leigh Warren, have been staged consecutively, and only the second time ever that a Glass trilogy has been attempted.”

Philip Glass 4 - use thisWhile Sexton says Adelaide is home to “Philip Glass aficionados from all walks of life”, with nine hours of total actual music time over three operas sung in ancient Egyptian (Akkadian), numbers and solfège (Einstein on the Beach) and Sanskrit (Satyagraha), the trilogy is set to challenge even seasoned opera-goers.

“There will be preconceptions and misconceptions and people who will wait for the first reviews before booking for cycle two and three,” he says, “but to sum it up Trilogy is very different and extraordinary technically. It’s relentless, demanding, incredibly clever and really exciting. If you can imagine the serenity of a swan on a lake, but beneath the water it’s paddling like crazy, that’s what it’s like to perform.”

So which is Sexton’s favourite?

“Each of the operas has really fantastic moments,” he says, “but, as a conductor, my favourite is Akhnaten. Akhnaten is also beautiful to look at. But I have had a greater sense of satisfaction finishing Einstein.

“Satyagraha has an extraordinarily beautiful beginning and end – the opening and closing are two of my favourite moments.

“And another of Glass’ operas, The Perfect American, based on the life of Walt Disney, is premiering in Brisbane in September, three weeks after us – it’s all going to make for an incredibly powerful few weeks in Australian theatre.

The Philip Glass Trilogy will run in three cycles between August 5 to 23, 2014, at Her Majesty’s Theatre.

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