Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Kepler: the new Philip Glass opera

The latest opera by Philip Glass is his twenty-second, so he clearly feels attracted to the genre, although few of his stage works are 'operatic' in the traditional, melodramatic sense. The new opera - titled Kepler - is no exception.

The libretto is the work of the Austrian theatre director Martina Winkel and consists of texts taken from the writings of Johannes Kepler, the Bible and the Baroque poet Andreas Gryphius.

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was an astronomer who proved that the Earth was not the centre of the Universe and that in fact the Earth orbits the sun and not the other way around. At the time this was heresy and Kepler was hounded by the religious authorities throughout his life. But the libretto focusses more on Kepler'a ideas and spiritual conflicts than on the day-to-day struggles of a man struggling to reconcile his science and the society around him. It is, then, not really operatic in the traditional sense and could equally be an oratorio. The concept (but not the music) reminds me of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex.

Glass's cool, methodical and ritualistic music is well suited to the scientific and philosophical bent of the libretto. The whole work also has a strong ritualistic element which also fits well with Glass's musical language.

The second act develops a clearer and stronger dramatic narrative and the music at points showed elements of a more romantic language. In that sense it starts to feel a little more like a traditional opera although the libretto never really leaves the rather dry realm of scientific theorizing.

The opera received its world premiere at the Landestheater in Linz, Austria in September. Directed by Peter Missotten, this first production is visually rich with powerful use of light, vibrant copper colours, video projections and the existing architecture of the stage area.

The work is a welcome addition to Glass's operatic output. While the libretto runs close to becoming arcane, the music is approachable, rthythmic and warm and the text does have a certain relevance to some of the key problems facing contemporary science and our wider society.

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