September 5, 2000
Volume 53, No. 2
What's Opera Doc?
By Eric Rangus
This summer, Shalom Goldman, assistant professor of Middle Eastern studies, returned to the theater.
The opera, actually, but not as a performer. In July, Goldman traveled to Chicago to attend a premiere of Ahknaten, an opera he co-wrote in early 1980s based on the life of an Egyptian pharaoh whom Goldman called a Renaissance Man-a character who, like any good doomed hero of the stage (and especially an opera), isn't standing at the end.
Chicago Tribune music critic John von Rhein reviewed the Ahknaten premiere and called it "dramatically convincing" and described the finale as "funny and deeply poignant."
The sold-out crowd at Chicago's Athenaeum Theatre certainly was impressed, rewarding the cast, composer Philip Glass and Goldman with a boisterous ovation at the opera's conclusion. Each of its four performances played to a capacity crowd. The reaction was the same at the opera's debut in Boston earlier in the year.
The Chicago show marked the first time Goldman has seen the opera on stage in the U.S. since it was first performed in 1984.
"It was a big critical success, but it's not the kind of thing people can put on often because it's very elaborate and expensive," Goldman said of Ahknaten's original debut.
The staging, in fact, is one of the opera's qualities that most impressed von Rhein. He wrote that the stage designers "filled the stage with swirls of color, light, gesture, pantomime and visual poetry."
Glass is generally seen as the country's finest opera composer, and Goldman began working with him on Ahknaten shortly after it was commissioned in 1981. At the time Goldman, a native of Brooklyn ("and proud of it," he said), was a student at New York University. He got the job on the strength of his abilities in translating ancient Middle Eastern languages.
The three years of work on Ahknaten involved some very heavy hitters. The late choreographer Jerome Robbins, for instance, was part of the original group, but he had to drop out before production ended; and writing the libretto involved four people, including Goldman and Glass.
The original artistic vision of the opera was somewhat fragmented, due partly to gaps in records. Goldman called it "singing archaeology."
"One day [Ahknaten's] there, then he disappears, and the bad guys come back. No one knows what happened to him," Goldman said, adding that his remains have never been found.
In the latest version of the opera, Ahknaten simply vanishes. When the work was first performed in the mid-1980s, he was surrounded by thugs and murdered. In fact, where the opera is being performed has a great deal to do with what happens on stage.
The German production of the 1980s was a political allegory. Ahknaten was the "good leftist," Goldman said, and the people who preceded him and overthrew him were the "bad rightists." The '80s adaptation in the U.S. was a sexual triangle among Ahknaten; Nefertiti, his wife; and his mother, Tye.
The Boston and Chicago shows of this year were a little more faithful to Goldman's original idea. "We have some of those [sexual and political] elements, but this was more about the religious revolutionary."
Ahknaten, it seems, explored monotheism. No big deal now, but during the Amarna Period in Egypt (14th century B.C.), it made him quite the pariah. During his 25-year rule, practically everything changed.
He introduced a monotheistic religion and moved the capital from Thebes to Amarna. Also, a new, more individualistic and informal art with more of an emphasis on facial beauty and mutual affection came out of this period, and women took an increasingly more important role in the culture. This is evidenced by temples dedicated to Nefertiti, who also had her own cult.
After Ahknaten's revolution and subsequent disappearance, the older Egyptian conventions in art and religion returned.
"And we do that very vividly in the opera," Goldman said. "The way the opera is staged, when Ahknaten has his own kingdom and dynasty, it's very light. When the old order comes back, it's done very darkly."
Ahknaten's individualism and reputation as a rebel, Goldman said, is what has made him an intriguing character. Interestingly, despite his many accomplishments, Ahknaten is perhaps not as famous as the ruler who came to prominence after his disappearance: Tutankhamen, likely a nephew of Ahknaten.
Operas performed in languages other than English are no great oddity. The language of Ahknaten, however, most certainly was. In keeping with the opera's authenticity, Goldman wrote the vocal texts (the lyrics, essentially) in three languages spoken during Ahknaten's time: ancient Egyptian, Biblical Hebrew and Acadian.
None are used today, and none has much of a relationship to any modern language-although Goldman said Acadian sounds a little like Japanese. To get a sense of what these languages are like, the following ancient Egyptian passage is in the first scene of the opera, in which a chorus is singing at the funeral of Ahknaten's father, Amenhotep III.
Ankh ankh, en mitak
Yuk er heh en heh
ahau en heh
Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, does it? Singing opera in a dead language posed a problem for the performers, something Goldman readily acknowledged.
"It's very difficult, and they complain a lot," he said. "When you sing an opera in Italian or French, some people in the chorus have some idea of what the words mean. Even a language like Russian, the syntax might be familiar to us. But these languages, they have no relationship to anything we know. So it's very hard to put the specific word together with the meaning." In fact, the only word cast members understood was "ankh," meaning "life."
The translation, by the way, of that passage is:
Live life, thou shalt not die
Thou shalt exist for millions
of millions of years
For millions of millions of
Accompanying the staging of the opera was an Egyptian art exhibit entitled, "Pharaohs of the Sun." The idea was to generate pubic interest in Egypt in several ways, and the exhibit will run through Sept. 24 at The Art Institute of Chicago.
Another part of the cultural ties were public presentations by both Glass and Goldman. Goldman said many of the questions he received concerned the relationship between the Bible and the Amarna period. While there is no proof of any direct attachment, Goldman said there are similarities between the ancient Hebrews and the ideas professed by Ahknaten and his followers.
Goldman's expertise stretches beyond opera. While his primary affiliation is with the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, he has taught in the Institute of Jewish Studies, which falls under the department of religion, for three years. He is teaching two courses this fall, Introduction to the Middle East and Introduc-tion to Jewish Literature. The new academic year begins Goldman's fourth on the Emory faculty. He previously had taught at Dartmouth.
This fall also marks Goldman's return to campus after a year in Israel, where he was directing the Emory program. While there, he taught classes, did research and wrote for several publications. He also gave a series of public lectures in Jerusalem about Israeli culture.
It is the volatile and passionate nature of the Middle East and its many cultures, including the occasional flare-ups, that draws Goldman to the region. "If you know about these cultures, it is impossible to be bored. The cultural mix is so rich. And you can't have a cultural mix without hostility," Goldman said.
"It's not a kind of 'I'm okay, you're okay' culture," he continued. "It's 'I'm better than you.' It's competitive, it's abrasive and it's bad for people's nerves. Scholars, especially American scholars, have the privilege of going, staying for a while and then leaving. In this way we can be observers; it's harder for the people who live there."
Goldman said he attempts convey the richness of this cultural mix, along with the inherent conflicts, to his students. "The mix produces texts, things like the Bible," he said. "It produces polemics. If you have blandness, you have bland art."