Glass’s The Photographer

featuring:
Annapaola Leso
Samuel Déniz Falcón
David Pallant
Director/Choreographer: 孫尚綺 (Sun Shang-chi)
Music Director and Conductor: Manuel Nawri
Ensemble KNM Berlin (Violin soloist: Theodor Flindell)
Taipei Chamber Singers

…and more.

I’ve been mesmerized by Glass’s Einstein on the Beach now for some time. Not surprisingly, I’ve never seen it performed live, but I’ve listened to the recording (the 1996 one) and even cut down as it is, to (only) about 3.5 hours, it is a hypnotic, captivating, encompassing journey of a creation, even without the visual element.

So when the opportunity came to hear another of Glass’s stage works, I couldn’t miss it, even if it involved a little travel. Having never heard the work, I didn’t know what to expect, save my general familiarity with the composer’s general approach and lesser familiarity with Akhnaten or Satyagraha. 

One of the ancillary benefits of social media, like orchestras or promoters of events like this is that just occasionally you’ll recognize the person in that video when you happen to be having a late, quiet lunch at the same café as they are. I was able to catch choreographer/director Mr. Sun after a brief interview he gave and before he ran off to give the pre-concert lecture. This piece apparently has indeed only been performed a number of times, and today’s performance was the Asian premiere. It was also cut down, to about 70 minutes, instead of its usual 90-ish (?). My feelings about that changed as the work continued, though.

You see, my allergies have come back for a visit, and I’m feeling rather under the weather and more keen on curling up in bed than going anywhere. But there wasn’t much more to do than sit: in a car, on a train, in another car, and in the theatre. So fine.

The piece is actually described as “Mixed Media in Three Parts.” Like Einstein, (at least the part that we saw of) The Photographer doesn’t have any actual operatic singing in it. There was a chamber ensemble (two each of violins [with a third as soloist], horns, trombones, a cello, keyboardist, a flute, soprano sax and tenor sax, maybe something else, and a keyboardist), and a chamber choir of six female voices. And three actors.

Sun told me that some critics have commented that The Photographer is kind of the next step forward from Einstein. If you know the works, you know that Einstein is ‘about’ Einstein, but really only very abstractly, even though he is onstage. Glass’s The Photographer is centered around Eadweard Muybridge, and while the story still isn’t told in a conventional way, he features much more prominently than it seems Einstein does in Einstein.

I was reading just earlier today about Nikola Tesla, and what an eccentric genius and eventually crazy person he was, and Muybridge, the little I know of him, strikes me in the same manner, a fascinating, timeless personage whose story and legacy easily captivates modern audiences. In this way, both Tesla and Muybridge could possibly be seen as good contenders for the kind of treatment Glass gave Einstein, Akhenaten, and Gandhi in his Portrait Trilogy, even if Muybridge didn’t change the world as much as they did.

This work is referred to as an opera in some places. Wiki tells us that it’s “a three-part mixed media performance accompanied by music (also sometimes referred to as a chamber opera).” It’s advantageous to know about Muybridge’s story, his trial (something else this work shares with the earlier opera), his beautifully captivating motion studies, and the project of proving that a horse does in fact leave the ground entirely at full gallop.

The three parts of this play are referred to as a play with incidental music, a concert, and a dance. The first part (or Act I) features the dancers/actors (who were dancing and mumbling to themselves amplified into the theater as the crowd filed in, a sort of internal-monologue-style overture) performing the play, with dialogue (by David Byrne) delivered in much the same way that Glass’s music is played: not minimalist, but repetitive, with recurring phrases and elements.

Voices broadcast throughout the smaller-than-a-concert-hall performance space, it was intimate, but also jarring when someone yelled unexpectedly. Falcón played Muybridge, and gave me start once or twice. This is, I suppose the setup for the whole rest of the story, since there’s no dialogue in any of the subsequent parts. Incidental music accompanies this act, interspersed throughout.

Second is the concert portion, with a solo violinist (another similarity to Einstein) featured as we are presented with Muybridge’s fascinating motion studies, of wrestling men, women walking, or pigs, monkeys, horses, dogs, birds. They look like what a young person today would call a GIF, only two or three seconds long, but for more than a century ago, are impressive and must have been absolutely magical at the time. As others have noted, the repetitive, even almost meditative nature of Glass’s music very literally suits the subject matter, as it also is repetitive and yet also captivating.

The third act sees our characters return (no Victorian observers in this interpretation) for their own motion studies, a modern dance/ballet-inspired version of Muybridge’s oeuvre.

I can’t speak to any details of the choreography; that’s not my thing. I’ve never been to a ballet (and not because I’m not interested), and can’t comment much on that aesthetic, but I can certainly say that Sun’s choreography was mesmerizing and sensual (as were the performers) … or perhaps ‘anatomical’ is a better word. It’s very ‘body-ish’ (see what I mean? I can’t talk about this stuff), suggesting not only the significance of the motions and movement in space, but also the physicality of the space around them, if that makes sense, like moving through a medium rather than just moving. They outlined squares and lines and angles on the performance space, and carved out shapes that you could follow as if it were light painting.

This third act is only as mesmerizing as it is once you’ve been initiated by the two previous acts, I think, the play itself and then the music with visual images. The coming together of the two in the end for Act III forms the real heart of the piece, and sick or not, I could have sat through two more hours of it.

It’s an immersive experience in its own way, different than the epicness of, say, Wagner (which I got to see some of there recently). In much the same way that lots of Glass’s other large-scale (earlier) music begins to have more meaning the more you listen, with each shift of meter or transposition or iteration of a rhythm or melody or phrase, so the images, movements, dances, steps all took on a beautiful, powerful, meaningfulness. I loved it.

But I was also interested to see the crowd that would be there. There were some young-ish couples, a few small groups of punky-looking high school kids, and a happy helping of old folks. I was most curious to know how many of them showed up because they were bored and had an open afternoon, how many knew Glass’s name and wanted to hear the piece, or how many mistakenly expected something entirely different. Is this what you thought you’d be hearing? What did you think?

It’s certainly not for everyone, but after the performance, I’ll confidently say I’d travel right back down there for any of Glass’s other operas or theater works, ideally when I’m not sick. The Perfect AmericanKeplerThe Trial? The Voyage? Sign me up.

But really, how awesome would a Glass opera about Tesla be? He’s already done Einstein, Kepler, and Galileo.

Well, that’s all for now, and there are only three more concerts for this entire year, but stay tuned, because they’re good ones. See you soon.

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