Countertenor in the Temple of Dendur
by Michael McDonagh
"I've been four or five people since then," countertenor Nicholas Tamagna says as he, his manager Sarah Stephenson, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Communications head Egle Zygas, and I make our way across its jammed Great Hall on a rainy day last fall. The occasion? An interview with the singer about one of the previous people he's been, "the heretic king" Akhnaten, who ruled Egypt from 1375-1358 BCE, and who is the subject of Philip Glass' 1983 opera of the same name.
The imposing 32-year-old countertenor enters wearing a baby-blue velvet jacket, rust-colored cords, and a white shirt open at the collar. Then he stands jacket-less between the pillars of the Met's rescued-from-the-Nile Temple of Dendur as if he really is the pharaoh who overthrew Egypt's many gods to install his sole god, the Aten, in one of the opera's most powerful scenes, The Temple. Tamagna's live-on-DVD performance of director Candace Evans' Indiana University production, which also invokes the Egyptian people's overthrow of Mubarak, is set to be released on Orange Mountain Music this year.
Our photo shoot done on Tamagna's iPhone, we get right down to business, with Fifth Avenue in the window just over his shoulder. "Did you know Philip's music before you took this role, and how did it come to you?"
"I knew about his two previous operas Einstein on the Beach [1975 -76] and Satyagraha ," he says, "but the only thing I remember knowing about Akhnaten was a private recording by tenor Ryland Davies of the love duet between Akhnaten and Nefertiti. I fell in love with it. My manager Sarah got a call from Cori Ellison, who was a dramaturg I believe at Glyndebourne, and she knew me from the Mozart Mitridate I did in New York, and recommended me to the Indiana University people, so that's how I got the job."
Getting a job in your chosen field is always a plus, but what sorts of challenges did Glass' repetitive music pose for Tamagna, who has sung 18th-century countertenor parts by composers like Handel? "The thing you have to master is the sequences, and what I learned was how to stay where you're singing four or five notes over and over again and not get tired, and you spend a lot of time figuring out the slight shifts. But what I was actually thinking each time was imbuing each piece with a new energy, so if you just keep thinking 'Out out, new new,' it's sort of a technique like in bel canto, where you're trying to expand the emotional energy, and you try to find a way within this smaller compass to feel this expansion."
Expansion isn't a word that comes to mind when some listeners think of Glass, but his tactics in thrilling pieces like Music in Similar Motion (1969), though constructed from rhythmic/melodic cells as in its opening two figures (two plus three plus three; two plus three plus three plus three), were obviously, as Tamagna noted, interested in making the sound go "out, out" to arrive at someplace entirely new. Akhnaten, though written four years after Satyagraha, inhabits an entirely different sound world. It's unique and solitary, as in Debussy's equally internal Pelleas, where the music seems more dreamed than enacted. But it's entirely fitting for "the great criminal" whose name was erased from "2,000 years of faceless pharaohs," as Glass says, quoting the American Egyptologist James Breasted in Michael Blackwood's Orange Mountain Music documentary A Composer's Notes. Philip Glass: The Making of an Opera (1985). The dream, or what we think happened, may be even more powerful than what actually happened. But who knows?
Indiana University's production of Akhnaten sets its king in a place that is strangely not unlike our own. "There's nothing in the story that isn't contemporary, really. It's about power, and upholding old ideas, and trying to force these new ideas into the world, and what happens to people who do that," Glass says in Blackwood's doc.
IU's beautifully imagined production is way beyond what anyone would expect of kids. Vet conductor Arthur Fagen's beat is clear and unassailable. Glass' Akhnaten, though not a standard rep dish, is just as serious and far more approachable than Schoenberg's Moses und Aron (1930-32), and that's saying a lot.