Philip GLASS (b. 1937)

Libretto by Martina Winkel
Kepler: Martin Achrainer
Cassandra McConnell (soprano 1)
Karen Robertson (soprano 2)
Katerina Hebelkova (mezzo)
Pedro Velázquez Díaz (tenor)
Seho Chang (baritone)
Florian Spiess (bass)
Soloists and Chorus of the Landestheater Linz,
Bruckner Orchester Linz/Dennis Russell Davies
Stage Director/Production and Set Design by Peter Missotten
Costume Design by Karel Van Laere
Video Director: Felix Breisach
rec. live, 4, 11 October 2009, Landestheater Linz, Austria
Picture format 16:9, NTSC; Sound format LPCM stereo, Dolby Digital 5.0; Region Code 0 (Worldwide); subtitles: EN, DE.

Philip Glass’s latest opera is about Johannes Kepler, the mathematician, astronomer and astrologer who lived in Germany from 1571 to 1630. The DVD has no booklet or liner-notes, so I’ve copied the synopsis from Philip Glass’s web site (which, except for the first six words, was copied from Wikipedia):

A portrait opera on the life of German mathematician, astronomer, and astrologer, and a key figure in the 17th century scientific revolution. He is best known for his eponymous laws of planetary motion, codified by later astronomers based on his works Astronomia nova, Harmonices Mundi, and Epitomoe of Copernican Astronomy. These works provided the foundation for Newton's theory of universal gravitation.

This opera is sung in German and Latin, which is an oddity. But the music is certainly familiar; Glass hasn’t changed much since the 1980s, and the musical clichés that he invented back then are heard here reused in yet another context. There are certainly many beautiful moments of orchestral coloring, well presented by Dennis Russell Davies, but the three-note brass chords, the monotonous vocals, the two-note rhythmic figures, and the arpeggiated winds all hark back to Glass’s works from around the time of The Photographer and Koyaanisqatsi, in the early 1980s.

Even the staging seems dated; it has that once-hip Robert Wilson-esque style of little movement, stark scenery, dark lighting and ridiculous Kraftwerk-like costumes. Granted, the rotating circular section of the stage is interesting, and the sets get more complicated as the opera goes on, making it look like an X Files episode near the end. It must have been a bit disturbing for the singers, though, to have to turn in circles as they do, but this provides movement even when the singers are static.

Also, the singers are all wearing tiny flesh-colored mics on their foreheads. I don’t know why this was necessary; most operas are well recorded with mics above the stage. When there are close-ups, you can see these mics, and they look a bit foolish.

There is, nevertheless, some very good singing in this opera when the soloists get their parts without the choir - though the choir is very good too. But the libretto is risible. Taking just one bit which I picked at random, when one of the sopranos sings: What now, if the Earth evaporates into the ether? Where does the matter leak? What remains from the burning of a meteor? Don’t you see that every day huge woods do burn? Why do the ocean’s tides follow the motion of celestial bodies? I find it hard to be moved in any way. Perhaps it sounds better in Latin. On the other hand one doesn’t listen to or watch operas for their libretti; one really goes for the music.

Yet again, my appreciation for early Philip Glass music has led me to explore a recent work of his which has disappointed me. I’ve reviewed several Glass releases in recent years, and none of them has stood out very much compared to the originality of his earlier works. Having seen a number of Glass productions - starting with the 1982 revival of Einstein on the Beach - and having followed his music over the years, it seems that Glass has become a producer of clones of his own works, and has not made many changes in his musical language. Steve Reich, the composer most often cited with Glass when talking about minimalism, has changed a lot since his early works - composed around the same time as Glass’ earliest music - but Glass seems stuck on a formula that satisfies those looking for more of the same. If you are a fan of Glass’s more recent works - or pretty much anything he’s composed in the last thirty years - you’ll certainly like this opera. It is visually interesting, though the staging is a bit clichéd, and the music is what you’d expect.

Kirk McElhearn
Kirk writes about more than just music on his blog Kirkville (

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