#53 Akhnaten

For this one I do two things: I read Phillip Glass’s biography where he travels the world, studies with Nadia Boulengar (lessons in counterpoint), drives a cab, and develops his polarizing repetitive structures. When I close the book, I like him. Second, I recall once again, my amazing trip to Egypt:

Luxor is still being excavated and I feel like Howard Carter. I’m trying to sound smart here but actually had to google Tut’s discoverer; who I really feel like – is Indiana Jones. Shapes of jackals wrapped in white cloths and rope litter the field in the distance. I’m staying at a pretty cool cottage full of writers and archeologists. I pause to swear Egypt has the best tea I have tasted and I savor the sweetened tannin and peppermint while a woman from the Footprint travel guides tells me about her adventures in India. I hate to be alone, but it’s a solid motivator for meeting and talking to new people. She’s great and makes me think of the movie Out of Africa for some reason, though I’ve never seen it. Earlier in the week we visited the Valley of the Queens together. The tombs there are playfully decorated and I prefer their dancing butt bumping scarabs to the austere Valley of the Kings where the famous Tutankhamen is buried with his patriarchal and dogmatic baggage. He is the son of Ahknaten. I wish Vanessa was still here, she was kind and curious, but she has gone forward to South East Asia, before heading back home to England.

For my last morning in Egypt I am alone again. Still at the cottage, I turn to some breakfasting archeologists and ask, “Where should I go for one last adventure?” Like good scientists they narrow my focus with a barrage of questions before replying, “The Valley of the Nobles, of course.”

The sun is a presence at the Valley of the Nobles in a way that worshiping Ra suddenly makes sense to me. Locking up my bike sweat rolls down my arm and I’m happy to find that my tires haven’t melted on the way over. I look up toward a man in a long white kaftan who walks down two long rocky paths to unlock the gate for me that leads into the tombs. There are no other visitors, workers, or tourists anywhere in sight. It is sacrificially hot. I know he will expect a baksheesh (tip) for this long walk and service so I negotiate with him to also take some extra time to photograph the hieroglyphics inside the tomb, a tourist ritual which normally isn’t allowed. Not a chance at Abu Simbel. As I go inside he remains outside where he lifts a giant broken mirror to capture the sun for me to see the walls clearly.

When I finish with my photos I’m satiated, but I can’t find the the five dollars that I swear I have. This is embarrassing. I pat all my pockets thrice and all I can find is a twenty dollar bill from America. It is my last few hours in Egypt and it has been one of my more memorable trips. This will be a huge baksheesh by any standard here, but what the heck I’m going to be on a plane in a few hours. My hand offers the bill to a welcoming hand.

On the way out of the tomb the guide motions toward another locked gate and his mannerisms signal this is not typical procedure. Isn’t the tour over? I tap my pocket to be crystal clear. “No more baksheesh.” He replies by tapping his own pocket now filled with my twenty dollars. “For this – you get extra,” he says. I follow him and we walk and then crawl thru passages of broken walls where the hieroglyphics have not yet been cleaned. There are bones in old baskets. There is a perfectly square pit that is dark as vantablack and I’m sure if I dropped a coin down would make no sound of bottom. He jokes that if he threw me in it wouldn’t make a sound either. I like him. It even smells different down here than in the tombs above. This is untouched Ancient Egypt. I hear the echoes of clapping and dancing from the hieroglyphics come to life, I hear Ahknaten…

The opera Ahknaten has been sold out for a while and we have been unable to get rush tickets so I wake up early and walk to the Metropolitan Opera to procure standing tickets. The girl from philly who takes the train up sometimes is here again. There is also a small old woman handing out numbered ticket to people in line and writing down their names on a clip board. She is a character who clearly isn’t here in any official capacity. She collects the tickets and tips (baksheesh) for her red bucket. Her presence is charming and adds to the color of the day in a way that only people can. Her procedural is separate and has no bearing on wether I get tickets or not, but fortunately I do.

The opera Akhnaten feels like the ancient Egypt of the tomb I visited. A long view of time and ritual. The jugglers are amazing and the chorus are bewitching. There is something about the carefulness and the repetition of Glass’ music that feels so appropriate for the subject of a governance that lasted thousands of years. The opera is equidistant of a theatre work and a religious service.

Anthony Costanzo sounds divine and just put out a complimentary album of Handel and Glass. The cover is designed by George Condo (who also designed the cover of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), who is interestingly now making some music that he calls ‘opera,’ testing both the definition of Opera and my own open mindedness. It’s an insiders world.

The visuals from the production are singular. The projected symbols feel like minimalist works of Judd and Flavin leaving the textures relying on the performers and the costumes. I melt when Akhnaten and Neferteri get married, This is a beautiful scene where the two walk from the sides of the stage in red dress with long trains, they slowly, very slowly walk toward each other and kiss and then cross over each others train. It is gorgeous.

I truly enjoyed revisiting my memories of Egypt evoked by Ahknaten. For a few hours art and life, memory and the present, merge into a harmonic whole.


So what is Akhnaten all about? The opera follows Akhnaten being crowned the Pharaoh of Egypt, marrying Nefertiti and changing a millenniums old theocracy to a mono theocracy that worships the one god Ank symbolized by the sun. 

Notes on the production 


Composer…………………………… Philip Glass

Akhnaten……………………………. Anthony Roth Costanzo

Nefertiti……………………………… J’Nai Bridges

Queen Tye………………………….. Disella Larusdottir

Amenhotep III……………………. Zachary James

Aye……………………………………… Richard Bernstein

Bekhetaten………………………… Lindsay Ohse

Conductor………………………..… Karen Kamensek

Metropolitan Opera