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From Allen Building to the Opera House

Glass opera featuring University Secretary Riddell’s libretto debuts in London


Anthony Costanzo, son of two Duke faculty members, dons the royal robe during performance of "Akhnaten." Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

For University Secretary Richard Riddell, the Allen Building doesn’t feel too different from the theater.

“The last time I worked on a production was around 2003,” Riddell said, a theater lighting designer who won a Tony Award prior to coming to Duke. “Now, you might say, I produce four Board of Trustees meetings every yea. Meetings, similar to theatrical productions, need a good script and performances, and every good meeting has a beginning, middle, and end.”

Earlier this month, Riddell stepped into a production entirely different from his daily responsibilities as President Richard Brodhead’s chief of staff. More than three decades after contributing to its libretto and designing (with Robert Israel) the original 1984 production, Riddell attended the English National Opera’s (ENO) staging of "Akhnaten" in London. The ENO production ran at the London Coliseum from March 8-18.

Richard Riddell
Richard Riddell

Written by prominent composer Phillip Glass, the opera depicts the 12th century BC Egyptian pharaoh’s marriage to Nefertiti, his relationship with his mother Tye and, most significantly, his lifelong struggle to bring monotheism to his kingdom. The opera premiered in Stuttgart in 1984 and was staged in Houston and New York later that year and in London the following year. It is the third installment of Glass’s “Portrait Trilogy,” which also includes “Einstein on the Beach” (1976) and “The Satyagraha” (1979), based loosely on the lives of Albert Einstein and Mohandas Gandhi, respectively. 

Riddell said he had already worked as a lighting and set designer on theater and operas when he met Glass in 1979. After Riddell had designed the lighting for “Satyagraha,” Glass asked him and others to collaborate on the libretto for his new biographical piece on Akhnaten.

Glass had also invited set director Jerome Robbins, designer Robert Israel and then-New York University graduate student Shalom Goldman to work on the libretto. Goldman, now the Tillinghast Professor of Religion at Middlebury College, taught religion at Duke from 2011 and 2015.

“In 1981, we went to Egypt to do some research,” Riddell said. “We also met as a group once or maybe twice [in New York] and Shalom did a lot of work to get the libretto finished, since he was the one who had knowledge of the ancient Egyptian language.”

Riddell noted that all three of Glass’s “Portrait Trilogy” operas use minimal text to convey the stories of their central figures. In fact, the “Akhnaten” libretto combines ancient Egyptian, Akkadian, Hebrew and even 20th century texts.

“We had the story mapped out together, and Shalom looked for ancient texts that could exist with different scenes,” Riddell said. “So Akhnaten might be at a funeral or acting something else out, but he could be singing a text like from the ‘Book of the Dead’ or [the text inscribed on] Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus.”

He added, “The words don’t tell you what’s happening. [Glass] liked to think about a story arc and key ideas, and would then write the music to evoke the scene or mood. The text that was sung was, in a sense, linked by culture and history. It would be like somebody singing the Declaration of Independence in an opera about the American Revolution.”

Riddell said he and Goldman enjoyed seeing the opera as audience members in London 31 years after the opera first debuted in that city. He added that, as a designer, he found the ENO director and designers’ choices fascinating.  “You can take the same opera, particularly over a 30-year period, and it becomes totally different visually and conceptually,” Riddell said. “When we originally did it, it was very important to us that the stage look like a desert. So we brought in real sand and water. [The ENO production] wasn’t made to look like a desert but used this single piece of structural scenery in the middle of the stage. It’s always fun to see someone else’s interpretation.”

Costanzo, Carrington

Anthony Costanzo and Emma Carrington in "Akhnaten." Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

As part of his visit, Riddell participated in a panel discussion with Goldman, director Phelim McDermott and an understudy of Anthony Costanzo, the counter-tenor who played Akhnaten in the revival. (In another Duke-centric twist, Costanzo is the son of Susan Roth and Philip Costanzo, both former Duke faculty members.)

Now back at his desk on the second floor of the Allen Building, far from the bright lights of a London opera house, Riddell says he still incorporates many of the lessons he learned while co-writing the “Akhnaten” libretto in his work as an administrator.

“Working on an opera is very collaborative,” Riddell said. “You’ve got the composer, the librettist, the director, the designers, the singers and all the technicians. And somehow, you’ve got to bring all their work together. We do the same kind of thing—bringing people with different ideas together—every day as university administrators, in pursuit of a common goal.”