The power of contrasts
“Echnaton” (“Akhnaten”) by Philip Glass received its world premiere in Stuttgart in the 1980s. Following on from “Einstein on the Beach” and “Satyagraha”, it is one of three biographical operas with which the composer paid tribute to an outstanding figure in history. Portraying on stage the lives of Albert Einstein, Mohandas Kamarchand, better known as Mahatma Gandhi, and the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, respectively, the works also reflect on definitive aspects of human life – science, politics and religion.
“Echnaton” (as “Akhnaten” is known in German) tells the story of the Egyptian pharaoh’s dramatic rise and fall in three acts. Seven singers, twelve dancers and a 42-person choir appear in the production in Dortmund, in a spartan stage set consisting basically of acoustic walls. Technical director Thomas Meissner was involved in the world premiere in the Württembergische Staatstheater, Stuttgart, when still a young stage manager, so this production is very special to him. Having also experienced the Achim Freyer productions of “Satyagraha” and “Einstein on the Beach” while in Stuttgart, Meissner enthuses, “they made a major impression on me, I have never forgotten what I saw back then”.
For the current production in Dortmund, Tatyana van Walsum was hired to design the set and costumes. The latter are dominated by shiny, pleated fabrics, which thanks to their reflective qualities create fantastic light effects. The stage is left largely empty to allow for an acoustic space where singing without amplification is possible. The starting point, then, was the arrangement of walls and ceiling to meet the acoustic requirements, around which both van Walsum and light designer Bonnie Beecher worked.
To create the “window of public appearances” in the first act, Van Walsum placed slender pillars of black, pleated fabric on a raised podium. A sunlit balcony that is divided into windows, where the royal couple appears before the public, echoes the characteristic palace architecture of Akhenaten’s day, and the abstract black pillars refer directly to the architecture of the Amarna period. Akhenaten’s temple was designed to allow the sun’s rays in. Or, as he saw it, to make it accessible to the sun god. Light, embodying the sun god Aton, always shines on Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti. Conversely, whenever they appear, so does the sun god. Another set element van Walsum created was man-high plexiglass objects, again pillar-shaped, but transparent. In the second scene of the third act, “Attack and Fall”, they become hour glasses, symbolizing Akhenaten’s era submersion under time. The sand in this case is rice, which has the right weight and consistency to fill the pillars at the required speed.
Light out of darkness
Contrasting light and darkness is the guiding principle behind the Dortmund production. The first act starts with a black projection on a semi-opaque foil, spanning the entire proscenium. Ever more white spots start to appear on it and dance around. Gradually, they turn into a 3D grid model of a human body, which moves away from the audience. Projections of 3D grid scans are shown again after the interval, in the third scene of the second act. Here, they are used to portray the image of a city, including references to local landmarks such as the Dortmund football stadium. Whether consciously or coincidentally, the scene links up with the Dortmund production of “Einstein on the Beach”, which also featured a video projection of a 3D model of a city.
The light generates another image on the dark surface, which first appears to be a human figure and then becomes the sun god Aton. In the first part of this scene, the narrator speaks without musical accompaniment, describing how the city Akhet-Aton was built. Glass gave the following stage directions in the libretto: “While he is speaking, Akhet-Aton appears behind him, a new city of light and public spaces, portraying the architectural and visual spirit of the Akhenaten era”. The projection is, then, an ambiguous element, reflecting both the light cult of the Amarna period and, due to the media used, the visual spirit of our times.
Light designer Beecher created several moments that derive their impact purely from the contrast between light and darkness. It sounds simple and yet has an almost revelatory effect, showing that without darkness there can be no light. In the coronation scene, for example, the dancers hold long light rods, conjuring a choreography of light when they move. Similarly, the royal family’s carriage has illuminated wheels. A stunning image is created in the fourth scene of the second act, “Hymn”, when Akhenaton appears in golden robes, encircled by sunlight.
The production’s heavy use of podium movements proved a special challenge to light designer Bonnie Beecher. Initially, she struggled with ceilings and lifting beams getting in the way of the light. The overstage and understage machinery was then adjusted so that the distance between above and below remained constant and the light could move along with the podiums. “From the start, it required an unusually close cooperation between art and technology”, says Meissner. The production, directed by Guiseppe Spota from Italy, was a prime example of work on a basis of trust and appreciation between the artists and the technicians. The revolutionary storm in the third act, alone, involves 36 podium movements. The podiums can be raised three metres above and lowered three metres below the stage, so sometimes there are differences of six metres. Here, the technicians needed to work out how to translate the director’s ideas into programmable parameters of acceleration, speed and height difference while ensuring that a convincing impression of turmoil and revolution is conveyed to the audience. And then there was the challenge of building trust between the artists and the technicians. As Meissner says, the technicians needed to know what it feels like to stand half naked on a slope, alone, rain coming down from above and the spotlight coming at you from the front, while speaking a text and perhaps interacting with a co-performer standing against the light. Then they understood how much the performers need to feel they can rely on them.
Spota always rehearsed the technology for an hour before rehearsals started. This approach placed crucial importance on the work of the stage managers and technicians and motivated them to really get to grips with the production and its demands. Several briefings were held on safety and ensuring that the performers felt at ease. Requiring soloists to stand on very high podiums etc. means the production is not entirely without risk. The chorus also faces some hairy situations. At some points, they perform walking on podiums which are being raised or lowered. To let them know their safety was being taken seriously, they were frequently asked how they felt about situations.
Meissner is full of praise for Spota. Their cooperation was ideal, he says, and Spota one of very few directors he knows who are prepared to really engage without falling into a power struggle. “Giuseppe was always calm and stayed that way until the end, when everybody else was getting nervous.”
After “Einstein on the Beach”, “Echnaton” is another must-see production with the power to move, and not a hint of school-teacherly or music-historical mustiness. Let’s hope that the Philip Glass opera trilogy will be completed soon with a production of “Satyagraha”, followed by revivals of “Einstein on the Beach” and “Echnaton”. The prospects are good. As Meissner says, “The atmosphere here is so positive. That is the crucial thing for getting something going”.