Philip Glass’ AKHNATEN

Event:Philip Glass’ AKHNATEN
Date:November 23, 2019, 12:55 pm
Run Time:3 hours 56 minutes
Ticket Info:Tickets available at the door and online

Tickets for AKHNATEN • per adult • $22.00 online

Tickets for AKHNATEN • per student • $11.00 online



Year 1 of Akhnaten’s reign. Thebes.

Funeral of Amenhotep III
The opera begins with the death of Amenhotep III. We see him first revealed both as a corpse and as a ghostly figure, reciting words taken from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. During the ceremony, we see a sacred ritual performed in which the body’s organs are carefully taken out and placed into canopic jars and the body is wrapped and embalmed. A ceremony takes place that represents a ritual occurring in the Book of the Dead, in which the pharaoh’s heart is weighed against a feather; if his heart is as light as this, it will ensure that Amenhotep will travel through into the afterlife.

Coronation of Akhnaten
The figure of Amenhotep’s son steps forward and the coronation ceremony begins. The new pharaoh is dressed in sacred robes, and the crowns representing Upper and Lower Egypt are brought together to symbolize Amenhotep IV’s power over all of Egypt. Once he is crowned, the new pharaoh rises up the stairs to make his first pronouncement.

The Window of Appearances
At the Window of Appearances, the pharaoh reveals his intentions to form a monotheistic religion. He changes his name from Amenhotep IV, meaning “spirit of Amon,” to Akhnaten, meaning “spirit of Aten.” Aten, the sun god, is glorified by Akhnaten, his wife Nefertiti, and Queen Tye, his mother. As the trio makes their pronouncement at the window, the sun rises behind them.


Years 5 to 15. Thebes and Akhetaten.

The Temple
Akhnaten and Queen Tye begin to make the changes that he has promised. He leads a revolt to banish the old religion and replace it with his own. Akhnaten enters the temple and finds the priests performing the old religious rituals. Akhnaten banishes them and forms the new order of Aten.

Akhnaten and Nefertiti
Akhnaten and Nefertiti affirms their love for each other.

The City
The site for a new city is chosen carefully. The new city of Akhetaten—“The City of the Horizon of Aten”—is built in praise of the new religion.

Akhnaten sings a private prayer to his god. His vision of a new religion and a new society is complete.


Year 17 and the present. Akhetaten.

The Family
Akhnaten and Nefertiti dwell in an insular world of their own creation with their six daughters. Meanwhile, Queen Tye is uneasy. She senses unrest beyond the city’s walls. Crowds gather outside the gates, and letters arrive expressing increasing concern about Akhnaten’s self-imposed isolation.

Attack and Fall
The priests of Amon emerge from the gathering crowds and break through the palace doors. The daughters try to escape and are drawn away from Akhnaten and into the swelling mass. Queen Tye and Nefertiti are also separated from Akhnaten, who is finally killed.

The Ruins
Akhnaten’s father mourns his son’s death. Meanwhile, the new pharaoh, the young Tutankhamun, is crowned in a ceremony similar to that of his father, and the old polytheistic religion is restored.

Intercutting this ceremony, a group of modern-day students is listening to a lecture given by a professor.

The ghosts of Akhnaten, Nefertiti, and Queen Tye are heard from the ancient world once again.

Notes by Zeke Hecker

Akhnaten (1983) is the third of Philip Glass’s three “biographical” operas, after Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha (about Mahatma Gandhi). It is also closest to our notion of what an opera is supposed to be like. Einstein was staged at the Met — but not by it — in 1976, and created a furor. (The composer and his friends pooled their savings and rented the hall. After one of the two performances, an audience member hailed a cab and told the driver he’d just seen an amazing work at the Metropolitan Opera. The driver said, “I know. I wrote it.”)  Satyagraha entered the repertory of the company itself in 2008. 

Glass, one of the seminal “minimalist” composers (an inaccurate label), is known for his hypnotic style: long stretches of near-repetition, harmonically static (but insistently triadic, mostly in the form of arpeggios), change occurring either very gradually or with startling suddenness. His sound world is colorful but not eccentric. Like other early champions of minimalism, he wanted to get away from the academic complexity and aridity of much mid-twentieth century “serious” music. He and his “downtown” colleagues endured the scorn of the critics. Not any more.

The operas are radically different from what we’re used to. They eschew conventional narrative. The scenes are more like tableaux. The stage picture is often abstract and “painterly.” Movement is highly stylized. Texts may be in obscure languages (Sanskrit for Satyagraha, Akkadian and Biblical Hebrew for Akhnaten), not intended to be translated or “understood” in the usual sense. The result is contemplative, ceremonial, dreamlike.

Akhnaten (aka Amenhotep IV) was an Egyptian pharaoh who ruled in the 14th century B.C. He is credited with introducing the concept of monotheism, centuries before the Old Testament. The deity, a sun god, was called Aten. Akhnaten’s ideas were resisted, and after his death the old polytheistic order was restored. His tomb wasn’t discovered until 1907. He was reputed to be the father of Tutankhamun. His queen, Nefertiti (not, apparently, Tutankhamun’s mother) has also generated great interest, because of the artistic treasures associated with her. 

What attracted Glass and his collaborators to these three figures — Einstein, Gandhi, and Akhnaten — was how they changed the course of history: respectively, in science, politics, and religion. 

The first time I heard parts of Satyagraha, I thought it was boring and stupid. The second time, I sort of liked it. The third time, in its visionary final scene, I was in tears. With Akhnaten you won’t have to wait that longTwenty minutes into it, when the prologue gives way to Scene 1, your head will explode. 

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