IU and Indy Opera present Glass's 'Akhnaten' 

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It didn't have to happen here. Some cities are almost duty-bound to give birth to major conservatories, colleges and schools: It would be weird if Juilliard didn't exist, for instance. But there was little in the stars that said, "Bloomington must have a world-class opera conservatory." Well, little except Herman Wells, the legendary president of Indiana University, who turns out to be a prime mover on these kinds of things.

And right around the same time that Kinsey began teaching his marriage class, a guy named Wilfred C. Bain came on as Dean of Music with a plan. James Capshew, from his Herman B Wells: The Promise of an American University, takes it from here: "Opera, with its highbrow cultural cache, was not an obvious choice for a university in the middle of the Middle West. But the shrewd Bain revealed his pragmatic rationale. Opera was an activity that incorporated most phases of musical expression (voice, orchestra, ballet and drama) and auxiliary fields (music history, musicology, scene design, stage direction, lighting and costuming). Only a school with a comprehensive program - and faculty to match - could meet the wide-ranging demands of opera."

Wells cleared the path for Bain upon his 1947 arrival, telling a trustee to, "Give him anything he wants," including 50 grand pianos, paid for out of a scientific research budget that was gradually outsizing the budget available for the arts. Buildings were built, top professors were hired for all aspects of the department and the opera program began to grow.

The Musical Arts Center, opened in 1972, was another key component to the school's growth. Very few students have the opportunity to learn on a stage near the size of the Metropolitan Opera House (90 feet wide by 60 feet deep in the case of the MAC, compared to 103 feet by 90 feet at the Met), with all its room for massive props and setpieces.

By 1980, one-time New Yorker music critic Andrew Porter could call IU Opera Theatre "just about the most serious and consistently satisfying of all the American opera companies" - and note that he's not just talking about academic companies. IU Opera has presented plenty of U.S. and world premieres over the years, from the first U.S. production of Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd in 1952 to the world premiere of Ned Rorem's Our Town in 2006.

So it's no suprise that IU Opera Theatre is taking on a challenge of the scope of Philip Glass's Akhnaten, his 1984 opera about the titular Pharaoh whose unique worldview (monotheist well before the advent of Christianity) and detachment from his people (he preferred the company of his daughters to any sort of more popular engagement) set the standard, in part, for a distant, intellectual, capricious king with unique access to the cosmos - giving way to Moses, Frederick the Great, Hosni Mubarak and, maybe, YHWH himself. But we'll get to that in due time.

Akhnaten, which completed a two-week run at the Musical Arts Center March 2, is presently making the trip to Clowes Memorial Hall, where it will play March 8 and 9 as part of a unique partnership with Indianapolis Opera. But for the size of the stage, the Indianapolis production will be a carbon copy of the one that premiered in Bloomington. So let's take a trip down State Road 37 - and back in time...

Wandering singers

With the premiere a week and a day away, the cast, crew, orchestra and all hangers-on have gathered in the Musical Arts Center auditorium for the first wandelprobe, or the first rehearsal bringing together singers and orchestra on stage. That bit of opera jargon derives from wandeln, or leisurely walking in German, which is to say that singers remain in street clothes and aren't expected to hit their marks precisely. But zero hour approaches, and with all the principals mic'ed (via a tentacular white cord snaking through hair and alighting on forehead), there's the sense that missed notes and cues mustn't be missed again.

Music director Arthur Fagen - a wry, leather-jacketed sage who splits time between his professorship at the Jacobs School of Music, his job as music director with the Atlanta Opera and freelance conducting gigs - is in charge of the wandel, taking over the reins from stage director Candace Evans, who had been heretofore working intensively with the singers and actors.

I ask Fagan after the wandel about the difficulty of playing Glass for both instrumentalists and singers. "Certain passages repeat with slight rhythmic permutations, and if you forget a repeat you can really get lost," he says. "It's easier when a particular musical moment is tied into a stage action. Now that every phrase is connected to what they're doing on stage it becomes much easier."

And this leads us to a paradox, one of those meaty ones that Heraclitus might have pondered upon. Glass's music requires singers to act as instrumentalists, even percussionists, such that they have to carefully count out each measure and phrase. And yet, as Fagan puts it, one may find oneself totally adrift after playing those endlessly repeating riffs: "When you're performing the piece you have a completely different perception of time and space than you do with any other particular opera. There's no clear beginning: It starts as if there was already a continuum before it and the continuum continues afterwards. It becomes a meditative experience: the mantra repeats, but there's a metamorphosis of the mantra."

Fagan points to the opera's closing scene: "It's about 15 minutes long, relentless and powerful, and the orchestral texture doesn't change from beginning to end. It's like something sketched in stone; it has something really epic about it. And in the end when he alternates between ancient Egypt and the present day, and then he brings back the voices of Akhnaten, Tye and Nefertiti, it's an almost out of body experience where these voices are coming from thousands of years ago, suspended. It's the most eerie experience. When I do this piece it really gets to me inside, which for me is a sign that it's a major work."

The first time that Fagan conducted Akhnaten, with the Atlanta Opera and Emory University in 2009, he says that he got a thumbs-up from the in-attendance Philip Glass for the way in which he gave the piece a sort of dramatic and musical arc. His second time around, he's continuing to explore the same territory: "You have to find the groove, to get in the flow. Glass's music, though it's minimalistic, does have its individual phrases and a sense of harmonic tension and release, and you have to be sensitive to that, otherwise it becomes very monotonous."

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Scott Shoger

Scott Shoger

Scott Shoger staggered up to NUVO's door one summer afternoon, a little drunk, poor and crazy-haired, muttering about future Mayor Ballard. He was taken in, hosed down, given NUVO-emblazoned clothes to wear and allowed to work in exchange for food and bylines. Refusing to leave the premises, he was hired on as... more

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