Making Singing “Ah” For Six Minutes Sound Interesting

Last week Vox had a backstage video on the Metropolitan Opera production of Philip Glass’ Akhnaten. What I loved about it and wanted to call attention to was the way in which they made elements of the production that would be barriers for both new and existing audiences intriguing, potentially piquing curiosity.

I mean, if I told you the opera was sung in four different languages; featured a six minute period where everyone sang “ah!”; had a minimalist set; a costume festooned with baby heads; a cadre of professional jugglers; and period of full nudity, you might be a little wary about going.

Though that might sound more appealing than the description on the Met site:

Director Phelim McDermott tackles another one of Philip Glass’s masterpieces, following the now-legendary Met staging of Satyagraha. Star countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo is the title pharaoh, the revolutionary ruler who transformed ancient Egypt, with the striking mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges in her Met debut as his wife, Nefertiti. To match the opera’s hypnotic, ritualistic music, McDermott has created an arresting vision that includes a virtuosic company of acrobats and jugglers. Karen Kamensek conducts in her Met debut.

Please be aware that this production contains some full-frontal nudity, which may not be suitable for young audiences.

The video starts out addressing the 6 minutes of “ah” pointing out that it is harder than it sounds, and showing the stars tackling it with grinning gusto and periods of frustration.  Charismatic star Anthony Roth Costanzo references the pharaoh, Akhnaten, the first to embrace monotheism, as a “totally fascinating, weird, complex guy.”

The video makes the whole idea of the trained voice accessible by having light hearted conversations about vocal warm ups disturbing the neighbors, working with Castanzo’s vocal coach in a living room–and then seguing to the importance of the first tone when the singer opens their mouth to deliver.

Then they talk about what sets composer Philip Glass’ minimalist approach apart from other operas.

They aren’t afraid to use unfamiliar terms like “sitzprobe” because after defining it, they talk about why it is important — the singers and musicians come together for the first time after weeks of working apart–and it is an exciting time. They also illustrate how much work it is to bring all these pieces together – how easy it is to fall out of time and how the conductor and the prompter keep the musicians and singers synchronized with each other.

The reason for having 12 jugglers is explained. The viewer gets a sense of how the swiftly moving balls are a counterpoint to the music and slow movement of the rest of the performers and how the balls and massive sun are tied symbolically.

Even the nudity is addressed with Costanzo discussing the experience of descending 12 steps over the course of three minutes staring directly at 4000 people while completely naked.

Actually, at the end of the video Costanzo discusses the whole challenge of the opera:

“If I told you you’re going to come see a minimalist 3.5 hour opera about ancient Egypt, where there is no real story and it is sung in ancient Egyptian, you’d think ‘Man, there is no way I am going to that.’ And yet, I bet you are going to love it.”

I will be the first to tell you, whoever put this 10 minute video together spent a lot of time and money on it.

However, it succeeded in making the show seem interesting and accessible due to the way it framed the information it was presenting, not because of the high production values. You are interested in learning more because you like the people and they talk about what they are doing in a relatable way. There is nothing in the video to refute a claim that the nudity is gratuitous, but there is probably going to be a part of you that is cheering Costanzo on because he is literally manifesting the nightmare about walking into work naked.

I offer this as an example of how to talk about your work and diminish the intimidation/ perception of strangeness newer audiences may experience.

 

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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1 thought on “Making Singing “Ah” For Six Minutes Sound Interesting”

  1. Ah!!, I’d go if I could! I like Glass. Thank you for this inside story. In a couple weeks I will get the chance to play with the annual Concert at Christmas in Portland OR. An alumni pop-up orchestra of past members of the Portland Junior Symphony, now the Portland Youth Philharmonic, have one two hour rehearsal and one little run through the night of, and then we open the concert. Hearing the sitzprobe in this video gave me the same thrill as the first few minutes of our rehearsal does. Aren’t we lucky to have a way/a system/a culture for these amazing events to occur?!

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