Glass Houses

Philip Glass and Robert Wilson once again shatter the bounds of musical theater with the digital opera Monsters of Grace

"We didn't know what we were doing," he says with a laugh. "We told our presenters ahead of time, 'We're bringing a piece. We don't know what state it'll be in.' I think fortunately I had been on the road for so many years with pieces that people trusted us and they said, 'Whatever it is, just bring it.' We invited them to be part of this experiment really. But we didn't always know how it was going to work. I didn't have a lot of anxiety about it; it was actually exciting."

Glass' most famous operas have generally focused on the life or philosophy of a famous historical figure, albeit in a highly elliptical way. After taking on the 20th century's greatest scientific genius with Einstein on the Beach, he explored Mohandas Gandhi's thoughts on nonviolent resistance with Satyagraha, and the king of ancient Egypt credited with being the first monotheist in Akhnaten.

For Monsters of Grace, Glass and Wilson adapted the 13th-century poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi, with English translations provided by Coleman Barks. The opera not only enabled them to exploit cutting-edge technology (which in Glass' case included sampling instruments from Turkey, Ethiopia and Persia), but to re-examine their own evolving aesthetics.

"About every five or six years, we get together and we make another piece," Glass says. "So in between what happens is he's off doing operas, and I'm off doing operas and performances, and then we come back together again and we look at each other's work and see that they've changed. For Bob, for example, the importance of the lighting has evolved tremendously and also the staging, the movement, has become an essential part of the work, which was not so true with pieces like Einstein, which were basically static images.

"In my case, the text has become more important, the actual words that people sing, and the meaning of the words have changed, therefore the way the voice is used has changed. So we come back and look at these changes, and look at the commonalities that haven't changed."

The major commonality that hasn't changed is a willingness to find meaning in the inscrutable and to trust the power of mood and rhythmic flow as a substitute for old-fashioned theatrical devices. Monsters of Grace might not seem like opera to those weaned on Bizet, but it meets all the crucial requirements: it's a marriage of musical and visual elements that slowly builds to an emotional climax.

"What Bob and I share is a commitment to a joint work of image and music that resonate and reverberate together and that have a kind of meaningfulness," Glass says. "Sometimes it's very abstract and sometimes it's narrative.

"With this piece, sometimes the music will seem close to the image and sometimes it'll seem very distant from it. In that way, the audience has to find a place vis-à-vis the piece, in each piece. It's quite different from most film or theater, where the opening moments of the piece will determine what your relationship will be throughout the whole evening."

Monsters of Grace is scheduled to be performed on Saturday, March 27, at Gammage Auditorium in Tempe. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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