Akhnaten, the third of Philip Glass's "portrait" operas, is based on the life of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaten, who ruled Egypt from 1375 BC to 1358 B.C. whose visionary ideas dramatically changed the perceptions of the world around him.

Akhnaten appears in the midpoint of the time span of three millenia. His dynasty was the eighteenth to rule since the time of Menes, and, when he ascended the throne in 1375 BC, he fell heir to centuries of rigid conservatism and inflexibility.  This fanatical conservatism, noted by the Greeks and other early visitors to Egypt, was the product of the secure, cyclical nature of the Egyptian environment.  During the reign of Amenhotep III, Akhnaten's father, the Egyptian religion, characterized by a bewildering multiplicity of gods, was dominated by the priesthood of Amon, god of Thebes. Economic and political power lay in the hands of that priesthood, and the priests' influence over the royal court was considerable.

Religious and theological distinctions tended to blur. Men of neighbouring countries realized that there could be only one set of divine powers, though the names of the gods might differ from locale to locale. Within Egypt itself there were ideological forces tending toward monotheism.  The most frequent worshipped force in the natural world was the sun.  The sun also had a secular designation - aten - which symbolized the sun disk itself. The stage was thus set for Akhnaten's introduction of the aten as the manifestation of the supreme power of the universe.

Akhnaten's reign, and his revolution, lasted only seventeen years. His rebellion against the massive weight of tradition encompassed religion, statecraft, art and language; and in each of these areas he attempted revolutionary innovations.  His reign ended violently. The forces of conservatism and reaction were too powerful, and the old order prevailed. The failure of his revolution strengthened the conservative trend in Egyptian life.


The Opera Synopsis: Act I reveals Akhnaten's ascendency to the throne. It commences with the death of Amenhotep III, Akhnaten's father and introduces one of the major recurring themes of the opera - the Egyptian funeral rite. The funeral symbolizes the Egyptian interest in life after death, and, through its recurring presence, it becomes the unifying image of the opera. Amenhotep IV (meaning "spirit of Amon") is crowned pharaoh, but when he rises to address his people he has become Akhnaten (meaning "spirit of Aten"), signifying his favor of the innovative concept of the monotheistic god Aten who was the first totally abstract concept of God, and Akhnaten calls on his people to worship Aten.

Act II portrays the changes Akhnaten wrought: leading a revolt he deposes the powerful priests of Amon, the old order; abandons the polygamy of prior pharaohs for the love of his beautiful wife, Nefertiti; and he creates Akhetaten, "City of the Horizon of Aten", a temple of art and beauty in honor of his new god. The act ends with Akhnaten's hymn to the god.

Act III depicts Akhnaten's fall. Isolated from his people and oblivious to the pleas of the outlying lands of his kingdom, where foreign barbarians are attacking the Egyptian empire, Akhnaten dwells in an insular world of his own creation. The priests of Amon re-emerge and call for the people to overthrow this pharaoh who, lacking a male heir, must be thought cursed by the gods for his heresy. The temple of Akhetaten is destroyed. The old order is restored. In the Epilogue we find Akhnaten and his family wandering among the ruins. Slowly realizing that their time has passed, they join the funeral procession on their last journey...

THE OPERA:  The narration - delivered by the Scribe (Amenhotep, son of Hapu) - presents all the spoken text in the lanuage of the audience. This material, drawn directly from monuments, letters and inscriptions from the time of Akhnaten.

The opera is divided into three acts, each about fifty minutes in lenght. The music in each act is continuous and the scenes follow each other without pause.

THE TEXT:  The vocal text of Akhnaten, with a single exception, is sung in three languages of the ancient Near East (Egyptian, Akkadian and Biblical Hebrew). Ancient Egyptian, written in hieroglyphs, was the language of Akhnaten and his court. The words of these vocal texts have been adapted from the foregoing ancient languages. They are not exact transliterations of the three ancient scripts, since these languages present multiple problems to the transliterator. Egyptian, for example, has no system for indicating vowels, and all of these languages contain sound which are impossible to reproduce in English. We have attempted, therefore, to establish a vocalization that can be effectively rendered by modern singers, enabling them to recreate the rhythms and cadences of the languages of a long- forgotten era.  The previously mentioned exception is Akhnaten's "Hymn to the Aten" in the second act. In this moment of deeply personal religious emotion, Akhnaten clearly was expressing his innermost thoughts. Therefore we have stipulated that the Hymn should always be sung in the language of whatever modern audience is hearing it.




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