“How does history get buried? How does it get uncovered?” wonders Ellen Sebastian Chang, trying to put into words one of the major themes behind Akhnaten, Philip Glass’ opera about the life, death, and afterlife of one of the most enigmatic and interesting figures of all time — the Egyptian pharaoh who, some say, created the doctrine of monotheism.
Born Amenhotep IV into Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty, Akhnaten changed his name and, along with it, the Egyptian way of life. He outlawed all religions save one — that of Aten, the life-giving sun disc (in doing so making enemies of the powerful priests of Amon). He oversaw a flourishing of art, culture, and liberal thought, which flowered long after his death. And he preferred stargazing over making war on neighboring countries. He was, by all accounts, not just a king, but a revolutionary. “When Akhnaten came along, [Egypt’s] culture had been really stable for a couple of thousand years,” Sebastian Chang explains. The androgynous-looking pharaoh effected “sweeping change, in terms of religious ideas. Also, he gave [his queen] Nefertiti political power, and he was monogamous; he didn’t want to take on other wives.” Akhnaten’s history was buried along with the ruins of his city, Tell al-Amarna, the capital of Egypt during his brief reign (1375-1358 BC). Yet since the discovery of King Tut’s tomb piqued interest in the Eighteenth Dynasty, Akhnaten has gradually emerged out of the shadows of myth and legend. He has begun to be regarded as one of the most important figures in Egyptian history — in many ways, much more influential than Tut (who may have been his son).
Sung in Egyptian, biblical Hebrew, and Akkadian — an obscure language used by Egyptian scribes and officials — Akhnaten was written in 1984. Composer Glass used found text for all his lyrical sources, including actual transcriptions taken from Tell al-Amarna hieroglyphs. But since premiering in Stuttgart, Germany, the opera has only been performed one other time (in Texas, of all places), according to Sebastian Chang.
For Friday’s Bay Area premiere at the Oakland Metro and continuing every weekend until May 30, Sebastian Chang, the stage director, designed “simple set pieces which represent bigger metaphors.” A file cabinet represents the British Museum, where ancient history is catalogued and hidden away. Senet, a pharaonic-age backgammon-like game, is used as a backdrop to symbolize the political gamesmanship that accompanied Akhnaten’s rise and fall. Dreadlocks become a crown for Queen Tye, the wife of Akhnaten’s father, Amenhotep III. And braids and hair extensions, which date back even farther than Akhnaten’s time, represent the lasting influence of Egyptian customs on modern fashion and style.
Sebastian Chang’s most central staging metaphor, however, comes from Glass’ ending, which depicts tourists walking among the ruins of Tell al-Amarna. “That really fascinated me,” she says. “I decided to take the approach that they’re all tourists.” Upon arrival, audience members are ushered in through a pyramid-like entrance by a tour guide, who “transforms into a scribe that takes us through the story.” In the process, some of the principals go native and don Egyptian garb, while others, like the evil Amon priest, stay dressed as tourists. Countertenor Paul Flight is cast in the title role, with mezzo-soprano Darla Wigginton as Nefertiti, soprano Angela Dean-Baham as Queen Tye, and baritone John Mingaro as Aye, high priest of Aten.
Sebastian Chang’s background is more theatrical than musical, but she says the Oakland Opera Theater’s down-to-earth approach is a big reason she got involved in the production. “They’re not trying to do Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra,” she says. “They’re trying to make opera accessible to everyday folks coming out of Everett & Jones.” Aten to that.