Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

MUSIC : A 'Voyage' Into Uncharted Waters : Philip Glass and crew--David Henry Hwang and David Pountney--venture into new territory at the Met

October 11, 1992|MARGALIT FOX | Margalit Fox is a free-lance writer. and

NEW YORK — When the curtain rises on the world premiere of Philip Glass' "The Voyage" at the Metropolitan Opera House Monday night, three men will sight land after a long artistic journey. Commissioned to mark the Columbus quincentennial, the opera is the fruit of a collaboration among Glass, librettist David Henry Hwang and stage director David Pountney that began six years ago.

The result, a lavishly produced work reputed to be one of the more expensive ever mounted at the Met, features baritone Timothy Noble singing the role of Columbus, mezzo-soprano Tatiana Troyanos as Queen Isabella and Bruce Ferden conducting. And if past performance is a reliable indicator, the English-language opera by the composer of "Einstein on the Beach" and "Satyagraha" promises to be unconventional, challenging and almost certainly not dull.

"It's an allegorical opera in which Columbus plays a part in the overall allegory of discovery," Glass said during a recent interview in his East Village brownstone. "It's really about the creative process in a way, isn't it? Because what the creative process shares (with exploration) is the ability to leave the familiar and venture into the unknown."

Indeed, though the opera receives its premiere on Columbus Day, "The Voyage" is no ordinary chronicle of the explorer's quest. Columbus himself appears only in Act II, which is devoted to his arduous voyage, and in an epilogue. The opera as a whole explores the pleasures and terrors of exploration itself, as seen through Columbus and through imagined travelers of the past and future. In Act I, space voyagers from a far-off galaxy hurtle in their ship toward Earth at the end of the Ice Age, crash-landing among an unknown people. In Act III, set in the year 2092, astronauts from Earth embark in search of those original Ice-Age visitors, knowing they will not fulfill their quest for generations.

And while the epilogue, set around Columbus' deathbed, does catalogue the explorer's now-familiar depredations in the New World, the opera as a whole is concerned less with biography and more with the larger issue of exploration, with the spaceship a sort of celestial Santa Maria, carrying its passengers to uncharted worlds.

"By approaching this whole subject in this way, we're able to 'elevate' the subject of Columbus from a didactic history lesson, which I never would have done, or even a politically correct analysis, which of course is just a big yawn," Glass says. "It would simply be no fun to go to the Met and see an opera about Columbus beating up the Indians. If they want to do that in Hollywood, they can do what they want, but it isn't good enough for the theater. The opera house is where poetry can come alive. It's not about history."

For the composer, a fascination with the cosmos has been a recurring theme in such works as "Einstein," "The Making of the Representative for Planet 8," based on the Doris Lessing novel, and "1,000 Airplanes on the Roof," a music-theater piece done in collaboration with Hwang.

*

"I think science fiction is a kind of popular mythology," Glass says. "When I talk about a spaceship coming into the solar system and landing, everybody knows that story. So I can then bend that idea to the allegorical purposes of the opera."

Glass' journey into this work began in 1986, when he approached the Met with an outline of "The Voyage." Two years later, the organization responded with a $325,000 commission, reportedly the largest it ever paid for a new work. For the 55-year-old Glass, who began his career in tiny downtown performance spaces, the commission is a true badge of legitimacy. But as he hastens to point out, that opulent sum included the fees for his various "subcontractors": librettist and copyists, agents and attorneys.

"By the time you pay out everything and divide it by four years, I'm not living on the streets, but it's not a lot of money," Glass says. "But then again, that wasn't the motivation to begin with."

Shortly after the commission, Hwang, the Tony-winning author of "M. Butterfly," entered the project for his maiden foray into the seldom-practiced art of libretto writing. "I really felt that my function in this collaboration was to work to facilitate the composer's vision," Hwang said. "Obviously, that involves bringing some of myself to it and trying to sketch out some themes that tie the triptych together, as well as fleshing out the characters." But even fleshed out, the text is deliberately bare-bones. Hwang's spare, poetic text evokes the isolation of the explorer, whether in outer space or on the open sea.

*

To introduce the triptych, Glass and Hwang begin the opera with a prologue featuring a scientist reminiscent of the physicist Stephen Hawking. From his wheelchair, he sings of the power of an explorer's fervor to transcend the limitations of the body. "Here's someone who's unable to take any physical voyages, but certainly takes the most extensive voyages in spite of that," Hwang says.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|