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How Many Roads to Philip Glass' 'Akhnaten' Lead To Duke

Famed opera makes its Met debut, bringing together Duke connections

Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten.
Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten.

Philip Glass’s opera “Akhnaten” is an unusual choice for the Metropolitan Opera, the United States’ premier opera company, which cuts its teeth on the classics. But when the curtain rises this weekend for the opera’s New York premiere, it will be unusual for another reason as well: The high number of Duke connections to the performance, both onstage and off.

The third of a trilogy of operas by Glass that focus on revolutionary historical figures, “Akhnaten” debuted in 1984 after years of effort by the noted composer along with a small team of theater figures and scholars.

One of those figures was Duke Senior Vice President and Secretary of the Board of Trustees Richard Riddell, who designed the lighting and the original set (with Robert Israel) and was a collaborator on the libretto.

Leading credit on the libretto, however, goes to Shalom Goldman, who at the time was a young graduate student at Columbia University. Always looking for some historical accuracy in his portrayal of figures, Glass sought out Goldman for his expertise on Egyptian history and culture during the time of Akhnaten, the Egyptian pharaoh who sought to end the worship of the polytheistic deities in Egypt and institute monotheism. When he died, he was seen as blasphemous, the old religious order was restored and nearly all evidence of him was erased.

Goldman, of course, later became a Duke professor and is the husband of former Trinity College Dean Laurie Patton, who left Duke in 2015 to become president of Middlebury College. Goldman is also at Middlebury as the Pardon Tillinghast Professor of Religion.

Glass compares Akhnaten, who instituted perhaps the world's first monotheistic religion, as a revolutionary thinker on par with Einstein and Gandhi, subjects of two previous Glass operas.

He turned to Goldman for assistance on the libretto.  In historical notes to the opera, Goldman says it's a story of "rebellion against the massive weight of tradition encompassed religion, statecraft, art and language."

Riddell recalled the early days of the creation of the opera. He was the lighting designer for a previous Glass opera, “Satyagraha.” The team that was assembled to create the libretto for the next opera (besides Riddell, designer Israel, Goldman, Glass and director Jerome Robbins) met at the apartment of Robbins, one of the artists behind “West Side Story,” who was scheduled to direct the original performance.

“The way Phil liked to work, he would get a few people together and talk things out. There was Jerome Robbins as director. Bob Israel was the designer of sets and costumes. I was designing sets and lights.  And Shalom was functioning as a dramaturg. 

“My memory is we threw around a few ideas, and Shalom drafted up the results [for the libretto]. That’s all Phil needed to begin composing the music. He wanted just a hint of ideas and structure.”

The final Duke connection is the person all eyes will be on this weekend at the opera: Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo will sing the lead role of Akhnaten.  He happens to be the son of Duke psychology professors emeriti Susan Roth and Philip Costanzo.

Costanzo has previously performed the role in productions in London and Los Angeles in 2016. His career is remarkable not just for his international success, but because his almost lost his voice a decade ago to surgery for thyroid cancer. He discussed the opera and his career with Terry Gross in a recent episode of “Fresh Air.”

There will be a small reunion during the performance run. Both Roth, Costanzo, Riddell and his wife Deborah will be at the Met to see a performance together. Riddell said he finds the Duke ties to the performance “a little astonishing and wonderful.” In an email, Susan Roth says this New York production will be particularly enjoyable, marveling at all the people she knew from Duke involved with it.

“It’s a small world!” Roth wrote. “We’ve seen the previous ones in London and LA, and love the opera. New York is definitely a-buzz with the premiere, so it’s a fun time here.”

If you can’t make it to New York, a live broadcast of the performance will be played locally on WCPE-FM on Dec. 7 at 1 pm.