Philip Glass' 'Appomattox' Makes Its Debut Einstein and Gandhi have been operatic subjects for Philip Glass. His list of great leaders expands with a brand-new opera Appomattox, a Civil War story featuring lead roles for Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.
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Philip Glass' 'Appomattox' Makes Its Debut

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Philip Glass' 'Appomattox' Makes Its Debut

Philip Glass' 'Appomattox' Makes Its Debut

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Philip Glass is among the most prolific and influential of modern composers. He's written symphonies, and trios, a few dozen film scores and more than 20 operas. Glass turns 70 this year but he shows no sign of slowing down. This month, audiences in San Francisco are celebrating Glass' birthday with a festival of his music. The events include the world premiere of his newest Opera. "Appomattox" is about the Civil War and its aftermath.

The appropriately named Cy Musiker of member station KQED reports.

CY MUSIKER: Philip Glass has composed a trilogy of operas about great men of the past: Einstein, Gandhi and the Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaten. Now, in "Appomattox," he's added Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln. Right after 9/11, Glass says, he began thinking about leaders of their stature.

Mr. PHILIP GLASS (Composer, "Appomattox"): Of tremendous moral dimension and moral stamina and principles, the likes of which we do not see in public life today. And I don't mean just the United States. I mean worldwide. That statesman-like quality is hard to find.

(Soundbite of opera, "Appomattox")

Mr. JEREMY GALYON (Actor): (As Abraham Lincoln) (Singing) Why must we end the war with senseless slaughter? How will we ever reunite our people?

MUSIKER: Here, Lincoln speaks to Grant, laying out themes that dominate the opera. The evulsion at the slaughter of 600,000 men in Civil War and the challenges that will come with peace.

(Soundbite of opera, "Appomattox")

Mr. GALYON: (As Abraham Lincoln) (Singing) Once the Confederacy lay down its arms, I'll force those men back to their homes, their shops, their farms with no fear of retrieval. Guaranteed all their rights as citizens.

MUSIKER: Composer Philip Glass says his work can't help but be autobiographical. He grew up in Baltimore when it was a segregated city. So "Appomattox" is not just about the end of the Civil War but all that followed.

Mr. GLASS: In fact, the war never ended. We're talking about a conflict of culture, a conflict of history, and it was not going to be signed away in one afternoon.

MUSIKER: In the second act, the opera jumps forward through time, from the peace Lee and Grant signed at Appomattox Courthouse to the civil-rights struggles of the 1960s. Glass also shapes the opera around his experience as a boy during World War II.

Mr. GLASS: I lived in a home in which every male - every adult male in the family was in the army — every one. This was a Jewish family in Baltimore and the Jewish community knew what was going on in Germany. And my memories of the Second World War are the memories of the anxiety and fear that the women experienced.

(Soundbite of opera, "Appomattox")

MUSIKER: A chorus of women, including the wives of Lincoln, Grant and Lee implores that this war be the last one.

(Soundbite of opera, "Appomattox")

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HAMPTON (Librettist, "Appomattox"): Their act is a kind of a commentary, really.

MUSIKER: Christopher Hampton composed the opera's libretto.

Mr. HAMPTON: They begin and end the piece.

MUSIKER: In pre-chorus?

Mr. HAMPTON: Yes. Almost. It's just emphasizing the fact that in wars women suffer in a quite different way but in no less according way, I think, than the men who have to actually go out and do the fighting.

MUSIKER: Hampton is a playwright who also wrote screenplays for such movies as "The Secret Agent" and "The Quiet American." And he wrote the libretto for Glass' opera "Waiting for the Barbarians." The composer told Hampton he wanted an Englishman to write "Appomattox" because Americans carried too much baggage from the Civil War.

Mr. HAMPTON: And I said, what do you mean? He said, well, you're really quite objective about all these. I said, well, I'm not only objective about it. I'm completely ignorant about it. And he said, would you go to research? So, in fact, I taught myself the Civil War in two or three months.

MUSIKER: Hampton distilled his libretto from the actual letters and memoirs of Grant and Lee, their wives and their aides.

Mr. HAMPTON: So I would take a letter and turn it into a kind of free verse really, I suppose, but not change any of the ideas in it. Just adjust the language so that it was, you know, slightly more poetic.

(Soundbite of opera, "Appomattox")

Unidentified Man #1(Actor): (Singing) This is message from General Gordon(ph). he says he's brought his cart to (unintelligible) but can't break through. He came upon a solid (unintelligible).

MUSIKER: Over the years, Glass has developed a loyal team of artistic collaborators. Christopher Hampton is one, conductor Dennis Russell Davies is another.

In San Francisco, conductor Davies calmly talks members of the orchestra to a glitch in the sheet music.

Mr. DAVIES: What's your first note?

Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible).

Mr. DAVIES: Oh, something didn't pick. It's all a whole step too high. Whoever did this has to - I assume it's the computer.

MUSIKER: Davies has conducted, recorded and played piano on dozens of Glass works. He even suggested a Civil War song for Glass to include in the opera, "Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground."

(Soundbite of opera, "Appomattox")

Unidentified Men: (Singing) We've been fighting today on the old campground. Many are lying near.

Mr. DAVIES: It's terribly moving and very, very expressive and incredibly sad song.

(Soundbite of opera, "Appomattox")

Unidentified Men: (Singing) Some are dying and some are dead. Many are in tears.

Mr. DAVIES: What these soldiers are singing is clearly on the minds of these generals as that horrible numbers of casualties and maimed people by 11 years of this terrible war.

MUSIKER: Davies says Glass arranged the old song so that it seems of a piece with his own music.

Mr. DAVIES: Charles Ives was another composer who was a master of this technique. At a certain moment, you weren't sure whether really it was Ives' music or whether he was quoting someone else or whether he was quoting himself quoting someone else.

(Soundbite of opera, "Appomattox")

Unidentified Men: (Singing) Many are the hearts that are weary tonight, wishing for the war to cease. Many are the hearts that are looking for the light to see the dawn of peace.

MUSIKER: Comparing Glass to Charles Ives may seem strange to those who still think of Glass as one of the fathers of minimalism, with its repetitive melodic, repetitive melodic style.

Mr. DAVIES: I think it's important to remember that that moment was from '66 to '76. For me, by the time I had composed "Ice on the Beach," it was over. Now, that's 30 years ago. But, you know, the words of wisdom that we read in the newspapers are sometimes hard for us to overcome.

MUSIKER: And the music critics have not always been kind to Philip Glass.

Mr. JOSHUA KOSMAN (Classical Music Critic, San Francisco Chronicle): To me, his music is a great conundrum because I find that some of it is tremendously haunting and beautiful and rich. And some of it just seems completely trivial and disposable and sort of slap dashed(ph).

Mr. DAVIES: Joshua Kosman is classical music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Mr. KOSMAN: I don't understand why. Sometimes I listen to his music and I think I've never heard anything so elemental and beautiful and simple and profound and rich and deep. And other times, I think, oh, come on. You know, write something or give it up.

MUSIKER: Philip Glass is writing a lot. Even at the age of 70, Glass is writing music for two plays, a new opera based on the life of astronomer Johannes Kepler plus symphonies numbers 9 and 10. Glass says he's flattered by all the fuss over his birthday, but it also makes him a bit wary.

Mr. GLASS: I remember when John Cage was about to turn - he was 79. And he dreaded his 80th year. I remember that because I knew him at the time and we're talking about it. Well, he never quite lived to be 80. He died before his birthday, and I don't doubt that he was maybe just ducking out of all the parties.

MUSIKER: Philip Glass won't be able to duck out of all the parties, lectures and performances scheduled in his honor over the next week. And later this month, there will be even more in London and the Netherlands.

For NPR News, I'm Cy Musiker in San Francisco.

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