Philip Glass always does the unexpected. Or, as he said to me when we were talking on the phone about his subsequently Oscar-nominated score for Errol Morris’ 2003 The Fog of War, “I’m a bad person to interview because I never stay on the subject.” Well, yes and no. Yes, because Glass’s focus on the work in front of him is unflinching, and no, because his instincts always lead him to surprising solutions. His two-act 155 minute intermission-less new opera Kepler is yet another example of Glass’s wandering, yet disciplined, mind. Premiered at the Linz Opera by American conductor Dennis Russell Davies and his Bruckner Orchester Linz on September 20 2009 as part of that city’s celebrations as this year’s Cultural Capital of Europe, Kepler made the trip to Brooklyn smoothly, carrying a bit of history. Kepler lived in Linz, Mozart’s Symphony #36 was dedicated to it, Bruckner was choir director there — and two of the Nazis’ death camps — Mauthausen and Gusen, whose specialty was getting rid of the intelligentsia, were scant kilometres from its city limits. But then darkness is rarely far from light.
And darkness, as distinct, or in contrast/opposition to — light –is the motor that drives Glass’s Kepler, but not in a Manichean way. Glass is far too subtle to put his cards on one table. Instead, being a practical and practicing Buddhist, he seems to have chosen the unglamorous “Middle Way” which means seeing “things as they are” and in Kepler’s case this is war, strife, and people who dared question him. The mathematician-teacher-astronomer-astrologer and all-round provocateur, who lived from 1571 to 1630, seems to have been at the epicenter of cultural ferment, and of course, the first decade or so of The Thirty Years War (1618-1648), which began more or less as a conflict between Catholics and Protestants and ended up devastating much of Europe, with a death toll as high as 11.5 million people.
Glass dramatizes these stresses in a direct and indirect way. And Glass’s German and Latin libretto, assembled by Austrian artist Martina Winkel, from Kepler’s theoretical writings on the laws of planetary motion and other major discoveries, his enemies list, passages from the Lutheran Bible, and poems by Andreas Gryphius (1616-1664), works both as reportage and evocation. The oratorio-like piece for the 79 member BOL was partially staged here with effective lighting and Karel van Laere’s costumes for its seven soloists — bass-baritone Martin Achrainer as Kepler is the only specified character with Soprano 1 — Sadie Rosales who substituted for the indisposed Cassandra McConnell — Soprano 2 (Cheryl Lichter), Mezzo (Katherina Hebelkova), Tenor (Pedro Velazquez Diaz), Baritone (Seho Chang), and Bass (Florian Spiess) — who functioned as aspects of Kepler’s often beleaguered psyche. The 40 member Linz chorus moved incrementally through the work.
I’d have to agree with my “plus 1″ friend that the first 20 or so minutes (after a wonderfully transparent orchestra only prologue with lovely chromatic figures for the strings) was pretty tough going. But things began to pick up when Kepler outlines his theories and his conflicts — the notion that heaven’s not a place inhabited by “divine beings” but a “clockwork” – which, of course, suits Glass’s formal processes perfectly. The chorus, operating as both character and commentator, gave Kepler heft and vivid and enormously varied contrasts. Glass has always written superbly for massed voices — the choruses in Satyagraha (1979) are contemporary landmarks — and those here were both affecting and powerful, especially the “Vanitas! Vanitas!” , which the full vocal ensemble sang on the lip of the stage facing the audience, with the orchestra seated behind. And wouldn’t you know it, my cell rang — being a neophyte in all things cell –which was the only sound in the house as the audience was completely spellbound — and how could they not be — by this arresting passage. I promise to learn how to turn the damned thing off.
Critics who think Glass hasn’t developed from his classic 1965-1974 period when he invented an entirely new — from the ground up — language for himself have obviously not been listening. And the range, variety, and depth of the music here surprised the ear, delighted the mind, and touched the heart. The composer used Latin rhythms in several sections– the Caribbean form’s called the montuno – which provided tension and drama and surprise in equal measure. His command of the orchestra bore the sure mark of a master. The sheer variety of the textures — from lean — to fat, but never clotted, even in a stunning stretch depicting the devastation both physical and psychic of The Thirty Years War, which, as the Synopsis has it, “becomes a threat to all mankind,” couldn’t be more horrific, and poignant. The orchestration was agile, colorful – the score kept the 6 percussionists and sole pianist on their toes — and expressive throughout. Languid meditative stretches — particularly those describing Kepler’s love for the starry heavens — alternated with ones where Glass used opposing contrapuntal tactics — say similar vs. contrary motion — complex stacked up rhythms and polyharmonies. There were tritones in several places — it’s not all just anchored in minor thirds — but full of fourths and fifths, as in the opening section of Act 2, where fourths in the vocal line abut fifths in the bass.
Davies’s beat was always clear — you never doubt where you are in the score — and his orchestra and chorus, under Georg Leopold’s expert direction, gave full measure. The solo vocalists — from the superbly gifted Martin Achrainer’s Kepler — never stinted on clarity, nuance, or dramatic projection. It was thrilling to see the justly awarded Sadie Rosales stepping in on short notice — score before her — and delivering the goods big time. And Glass looked close to tears as he took his curtain call, though it was hard to see him through the roaring standing ovation which erupted as soon as the double basses played their completely exposed last notes.
One could argue until kingdom come as to whether Kepler is a “real opera ” (Tosca, it ain’t) or an opera-oratorio like Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex (1926-27) — and some people probably will . But who cares when you have a work like this? Glass’ attraction to scientists as subjects, as in his Einstein on the Beach (1975 -76), Galileo Galilei (2001), and in his score for Errol Morris’ doc about Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (1992) is well-known but I think the real “subject” is much large. Kepler is, in large part, an epic meditation on death, as in the eponymously titled 9th movement of Glass’ s 12 movement 5th Symphony (1999). Or, as the Latin chant John Barry used in The Lion in Winter (1968) puts it “Media vita in morte sumus” — ” in the midst of life we are in death.” And you can’t get more serious, and essential than that.