Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs documenting the movements of animals and humans helped make the development of motion pictures possible. The story of his life, though, is better suited for theater.
Muybridge is the subject of Philip Glass’ chamber opera The Photographer, which Butler University’s departments of theater, dance, music and media arts will combine to stage Oct. 5-8 in the university’s Black Box Theatre and Oct. 20-22 at the Eiteljorg Museum.
A story told by using what Butler Theatre Department Chairman John Green calls “the theater of images,” The Photographer focuses on Muybridge’s killing of his wife’s lover, a military officer named Larkyns, on Oct. 17, 1874, after he found their love letters. Muybridge greeted the man with these words: “Good evening, Major, my name is Muybridge and here is the answer to the letter you sent my wife.”
Muybridge then shot Larkyns. A court ruled the killing a “justifiable homicide.”
Glass’ telling of Muybridge’s story segues from language to abstract movement. Part one uses words from court transcripts, letters Muybridge wrote his wife from jail, letters she wrote to her lover, letters her lover wrote to her and things Muybridge said in court, all pieced together with poems by Walt Whitman and Thomas Hardy in a sort of language collage. Music written by Glass accompanies the material.
Part two is what Glass calls a concert: It’s a 14-minute orchestral piece with violin solos, during which slides of Muybridge photos of human and animal locomotion are projected, plus some other video.
The final part is the dance, with choreography based on Muybridge’s ideas of time, space and animal movement, accompanied by Glass music.
“It’s not traditional narrative theater,” Green says. “It’s not the work you’d see at the Phoenix or the IRT [Indiana Repertory Theatre]. It’s theater where what you see is more important than what is said and what you hear in terms of the music.”
The Photographer premiered in 1982. When Glass visited Butler in 2004, Green brought up the possibility of Butler staging the show. Glass not only agreed, he gave the university music that wasn’t included in the original score. Butler will stage The Photographer using a 20-piece orchestra, six-piece choir, 20 dancers, six actors on stage and six actors on film.
The hope is that Glass will attend a performance, but that’s not certain. Beyond providing his approval and new music, Glass didn’t offer much direction or make any demands.
“In the brief discussions I’ve had with him, there’s no ego there,” Green said. “There’s no ‘I’m Philip Glass and this is the way it’s going to be.’ It’s ‘Hey guys, I’m pleased you want to do this. Thanks for doing it.’”
The show will be presented Oct. 5-7 at 8 p.m. and Oct. 7-8 at 2 p.m. at Butler. Tickets are $10 adults, $5 students. Call the Butler Theatre box office at 317-940-9247. The show is at the Eiteljorg Museum Oct. 20-21 at 7:30 p.m. and Oct. 22 at 4 p.m.