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Bob Bernard's Corner: Three Faces of Akhnaten

The micro, the macro, and the naturalistic

By Bob Bernard

1984: The Micro

Philip Glass‘s Akhnaten premiered at the Wurttemberg State Theatre of Stuttgart in March 1984. Achim Freyer, already familiar with Glass’s work from having illustrated a production of Satyagraha there in 1981, was the director.

Freyer’s approach to Akhnaten focused on the smallest of hand gestures: As he put it: “The way Glass approaches opera is completely new to me. His music requires that I develop a new method of working with the singers. The emphasis is much more on the purely musical ideas rather than on internal or psychological [motivation]. [These latter items] will be expressed when the opera is sung well.”

Director Achim Freyer positions the hands of Akhnaten and Nefertiti

He continued: “The same is true for the acting. Because of the nature of the score, one cannot be expected to bring out any realistic emotion from the singers which can be expressed on stage. Most of the time it is easier to work with a number of small gestures – with minimal repetition – which, when taken as a whole, will convey the action and psychology of the scene. [It’s like] working with paint on a canvas.”

Stuttgart's Hymn to the Sun

Mr. Freyer’s hands-on approach to preparation for the world premiere included personally creating the marquee art.

[Note the figure in the center frame, characteristic of his way of signing paintings].

2011: The Macro

In 2011, Long Beach Opera’(LBO) production of Akhnaten pushed the already-expanding horizon of projected operatic stagecraft well beyond anything previously done. A jumble of cardboard boxes, a few vertical panels, and a pivotable rake were displayed with startling effectiveness as being a ceremonial altar and a processional ramp, right along with imbuing the dance ensemble’s choreography with a sense of dramatic urgency that would have been otherwise unrealizable with a straightforward display of human motion.

This computer-based, broad-brush, projection-oriented approach obviated having any concern with small hand gestures and made unnecessary any provision for elaborate costuming.

LBO’s venture was accomplished via a three-step process:

  1. The stage was illuminated with infrared (IR) light from a selection of three locations: (1) The Terrace Theatre’s cyclorama—looking head on from audience orchestra level to full stage; (2) directly overhead from center stage; and (3) high on stage right (approximately 45 degrees up from the stage floor).
  2. The reflected IR was sensed, processed, blended in computers, matched to each light source, and transferred into the visible spectrum.
  3. Selected images (being blended and processed) were then projected in a real-time operation, the only delays being miniscule computer frame times.

In the following composite projection / dance / ceremonial scene, Akhnaten and family are visually isolated on a platform, while the Nanette Brodie Dancers (a local, modern dance troupe) go through a series of hieroglyphic poses. These poses, sensed and stored in one of the computers, were then time-delayed and projected back onto the front scrim, each of the succeeding elevated lines of dancer images being delayed a different amount of time from when first sensed:

In the next example, the C- and T-shaped images were first sensed from directly above as the dancers came on stage, the rotated C being the image of the altar under construction and the dual T's being the cumulative reflected images of the dancers moving about while placing boxes on this altar. This composite representation was then, in effect, rotated 90 degrees towards the audience by transferring the image to the computer that, in turn, projected the scene onto the front scrim:

Two last examples:

  1. The sole “semi-canned” computer program was a basic, full-screen pixel raster image, programmed to swirl about in dynamic harmony with the ambient on-stage background. Here below (on the left) is a colorized flow of pixels applied to the isolated image of Akhnaten, the color and directional flow of the pixels controlled by the manipulation of Video Designer Frieder Weiss’s iPad.
  2. This application (below, on the right) used pixel raster imaging by means of the projection of vertical lines onto a group of panels. These vertical lines, centered on each panel, served as reference points for selected element groupings of raster pixels, the orientation of these pixels being programmed so as to congregate symmetrically about their respective vertical references, resulted in a group of floor-to-ceiling, column-like images:


1984: The Naturalistic

David Freeman directed the American premiere of Akhnaten for Houston Grand Opera (HGO) in November of 1984.

The opera’s libretto has no dialogue and the opera’s construction is simply a collection of hymns, poems, statements, and inscriptions. Sung text is taken from the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom; from the Egyptian Book of the Dead; an Egyptian Reading Book; from various texts found in tombs; and (at the conclusion of Akhnaten’s Hymn to the Sun) Psalm 194 from the Hebrew Bible. The Hymn to the Sun is to be sung in the language of the audience.

With the exception of The Hymn to the Sun and Psalm 194, the texts are not designed to be related to stage action, but were selected for the compatibility of how they sounded with Glass’s music.

Director Freeman recognized that the opera Akhnaten must depend largely on the imagination of its production. He encouraged the principals to act naturally, eschewing stylism for realism and also sometimes divorcing the action from the music. Right along with Glass having Akhnaten be a countertenor (to emphasize his uniqueness), Freeman cast the person of Akhnaten as a hermaphrodite (or intersex, if you prefer), a person having reproductive organs normally associated with both male and female sexes.

The above decision followed from an analysis of recovered art that depicts Akhnaten: His physique appears to show both male and female characteristics. The female characteristics are a narrow waist, pronounced breast and abdominal areas, wide hips and plump thighs, but with the wide shoulders appearing to be male. His face is shown with untypical Egyptian features: an elongated shape with a pendulous jaw, sunken cheeks and long, upward slanting eyes.

An image of Akhnaten recovered from ruins at Amarna is shown below (left), with a photo of Nefertiti and Akhnaten from HGO's Act 2 love scene starring Marta Senn and Christopher Robson (right):


Much more speculative is the theory that the Greek myth of Oedipus (he who married his mother and brought destruction upon his native land) had its origin with the story of Akhnaten and his mother Tye. In his book Oedipus and Akhnaten, author Immanuel Velikovsky pushes this theory, citing (along with other stuff) the claim that Thebes in Greece took its name from the older Thebes in Egypt.

In any case, twelve years after the death of Akhnaten’s father, Amenhotep III, Tye was still mentioned in inscriptions as Queen and beloved of the King. It has been suggested that Akhnaten and his mother acted as consorts to each other till her death.

Working with this idea, HGO Director Freeman staged scenes that reflect tension between this unique ménage à trois.

Christopher Robson (Akhnaten), Marta Senn (Nefertiti) and Marie Angel (Tye): HGO’s 2nd Act of Akhnaten

Author: Thomas Lady

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