New staging of Philip Glass' 'Akhnaten' equates monotheism with violence

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Philip Glass' 'Akhnaten'

American minimalist composer Philip Glass based his 1983 opera "Akhnaten" on the life of Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten (photo: the 2018 staging of the work in Bonn). Like "Einstein on the Beach" about Albert Einstein and "Satyagraha" about Mahatma Gandhi, Glass's third biographical opera focuses on a historical figure whose radical vision revolutionized his era.

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Akhenaten, Egypt's revolutionary pharaoh

Before adopting the name Akhenaten, the ancient Egyptian pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty was initially known as Amenhotep IV. Akhenaten ruled Egypt for 17 years — taking over from his father, Amenhotep III, circa in 1353 BC. He devoted a major part of his regime to establishing a monotheistic religious system, making him one of the most controversial and fascinating figures in Egyptian history.

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Aten, the only god

Egyptian civilization's long-established worship of thousands of gods was rejected by Akhenaten, who centered his religion on Aten, "the disk of the sun" from ancient Egyptian mythology. Another radical feature of his cult was that human depictions of the god — and idolatry — were banned. The religion known as Atenism is widely considered to be one of the first instances of monotheism in history.

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Amarna art

The era of Egyptian history under Akhenaten's reign is known as the Amarna Period, Amarna being the archaeological site where the pharaoh established his royal residence and the main site of worship to Aten. The Amarna style of art also featured a radical break from what had previously been done, often depicting the Aten and its rays of sun ending in tiny hands.

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An immortal Queen is born

Akhenaten married "the Mona Lisa of Ancient Egypt," Nefertiti. Her bust, part of the collection at Berlin's Neues Museum, is the most famous of all Amarna works. Little is known about Nefertiti, whose name means "the beautiful one has come forth." Some experts believe that Akhenaten's wife also ruled briefly, following her husband's death and before the accession of Tutankhamun.

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The Great Royal Wife

Many scholars agree that Nefertiti had an elevated title and was named the co-regent of her husband. The couple had six known daughters. Their worship of Aten is depicted here, along with three of their children. Akhenaten would have a final son, known as Tutankhamun. While it remains unclear, some believe Nefertiti to be the mother of the legendary boy king.

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The short reign of a boy king

The jury is out on whether this image depicts Tutankhamun and his half-sister and wife Ankhesenanun, or his sister Meritaten and her pharaoh husband Smenkhkare. Tutankhamun would ascend to the throne in 1333 BC as a young boy, counseled by the powerful general Horemheb.

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The downfall

The general took over when Tutankhamun died, about 18 years old. Horemheb erased all traces of Akhenaten, Nefertiti and Tutankhamun from history, and razed Amarna, the capital built by Akhenaten (picture). Horemheb's own reign was one of relative peace and stability in Egypt. His death signaled the end of the 18th dynasty and the beginning of another under the reign of his grandson Ramesses I.

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A late discovery

Akhenaten's condemnation from official history might be a reason why Tutankhamun's tomb long escaped looting in the Valley of Kings. It was discovered in 1922 by British archaeologist Howard Carter, reigniting interest in the largely forgotten 18th dynasty. Resplendent artifacts found in the lavish tomb further intrigued Egyptologists and the general public.

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Ancient fascination

While Egyptology was popularized with Carter's historic discovery, the study of ancient Egypt — and its infinite mysteries — has been the obsession of many for centuries. Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion deciphered the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone in 1822, and Venetian explorer Giovanni Battista Belzoni pioneered the exploration of the second pyramid of Giza in the early 19th century.

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Suspenseful new searches

Believed to contain hidden chambers, King Tutankhamun's burial chamber is being scanned anew. The current investigation was launched in 2015, based on British Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves' theories. He believes that a concealed space might contain the tomb of Queen Nefertiti. Previous tests have been inconclusive, but proving the theory would be like "winning the lottery," say archaeologists.

Taking a pointed view of a historical subject, director Laura Scozzi's fully-choreographed interpretation of the opera by Philip Glass brings ancient Egypt into the 21st century and delivers food for thought.

Premiering in 1984, "Akhnaten" centers on the Egyptian pharaoh of that name, the husband of Nefertiti who reigned in the 14th century BC and imposed a new, monotheistic religion on his subjects by violent means.

In the story as set to music by American composer Philip Glass, this prophet of the sun-god Aten loses touch with his subjects and is deposed in a violent uprising after a 17-year reign. The central characters drift in and out of the story in the two and a half-hour opera of solemn and ritualistic music, singing texts in ancient Egyptian, Arcadian, Hebrew and in the audience's language.

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With the diffuse plot lending itself to a variety of interpretations, stage director and choreographer Laura Scozzi focuses on a central issue of the 21st century: the effect of religious dogmatism on historical and modern societies.

Read more: Composing in his dreams — Philip Glass turns 80 

Culture | 14.01.2015

In her fully choreographed story, Scozzi doesn't place the eponymous character in the spotlight — portrayed by the countertenor Benno Schachtner — but instead a young female dancer who first depicts an unruly schoolgirl, later a rifle-wielding religious fanatic and finally a member of Akhnaten's court before she follows the pharaoh into death.

The colorful staging with modern and historical costumes has scenery ranging from a living room with TV to Egyptian tombs: not so much an updating of the ancient subject as an interweaving of the eras. Akhnaten proclaims eternal truth from an edifice that by means of stunning video technology is erected and torn down repeatedly to depict a synagogue, an early Christian church and a mosque, as graffiti spray-painters proclaim the supremacy of their respective deities.

DW talked with stage director Laura Scozzi about the production and about her approach to music theater.

Read more: Power of pictures — Religion's struggle with images

 Choreographin und Regisseurin Laura Scozzi bei Probenbeginn in Bonn

Laura Scozzi during rehearsals in Bonn

DW: Does one have to be familiar with the opera "Akhnaten" by Philip Glass to understand your take on it?

Laura Scozzi: Not really. I invented a new story. There's the intellectual framework of course, but I try to address the listeners' and viewers' feelings.

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Does the music of Philip Glass lend itself well to your strategy of interpretation?

To me, his music is very close to life itself. His musical style always presses forward powerfully, like the cycle of life. It has incredible energy that can be expressed in the dancers' movements.

You've opted for a subject that is timeless yet occupies us daily: religion. What is your central idea?

It seems that at the moment when there is a God in whom one believes, one automatically divides the world into those who believe in that God and those who don't — and those others are then the enemies one must fight. Suddenly, messages of love and brotherhood morph into messages of hate. I'm focused on the different ways one can interpret a religious text, depending for example at what point one stands in his or her own life. Who it is reading a religious text and how he comprehends it can result in great differences in how it is understood.

Read more: Experts confident secret chamber in King Tut's tomb belongs to Nefertiti

Altägyptischer König Echnaton

Nefertiti and Akhnaten in busts on display at Berlin's Neues Museum

What role does the historical figure Akhnaten play here?

I see his religion originally as a cosmological one embodied by the sun. Yet Akhnaten personifies the orb of the sun, telling his people, "He spoke to me." So the sun is transformed into an individual god — and that, of course, makes this religion comparable to the other great three monotheistic ones — but on an archetypical level.

Is it necessary to update a historical subject in an opera in order for people to understand it today?

A staging of a theatrical work must react to today's experience and what moves us. But of course, the piece is named "Akhnaten," and we have to focus on that figure who lived three thousand years ago. For me it's important to look inside the piece for issues that reflect contemporary life.

Do audiences resist that? 

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I strongly feel opposition sometimes. As far as staging, dance, opera and theater are concerned, Germany is at the forefront of the avant-garde, also compared to other European countries. Yet I feel that opera is regarded as too sacred somehow. It's like a giant elephant in the room that one doesn't like to touch or to move around. But what propels artistic activity is a healthy non-respect for the rules, a violation of them. To me, that's essential.

I feel that your staging really fits the music. Did you have to totally immerse yourself in Philip Glass to achieve that? And do you go with the flow of the music, or against the grain?

I actually have a very strange relationship with music, because I came from a very unmusical family and never listened to it when growing up. For me, music is totally about feeling. It's the emotional connection. So I can either go with the music or against it, whatever makes sense.

Born in Milan, Italy in 1964, Laura Scozzi began her career as a dancer and choreographer but has emerged in recent years as a highly-acclaimed stage director on both sides of the Atlantic. Usually working with dancers, her productions are rich in imagery and sometimes address provocative or controversial issues such as refugees or religion. 

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