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From the mid-1970’s through the early 1980’s composer Philip Glass wrote three “portrait operas” which revolutionized conventional operatic production. Einstein on the Beach, created with director Robert Wilson, was the first as well as the most influential of the three.

Einstein’s success was followed by Satyagraha, focused on Gandhi, and Akhnaten which presented scenes from the life of the extraordinary Pharaoh who renounced the gods of Egypt and introduced monotheism.

Perhaps most surprising is that, despite their seminal nature, productions of any of the operas were, until recently, rare. LA Opera presented a limited run of Wilson’s production of Einstein 3 years ago, and their current Akhnaten is a co-production with English National Opera.

With Akhnaten, Glass and his collaborators strove to look seriously at the life of an uncommon man whose beliefs upset the social construct enough that others tried to erase him from history. In order to avoid campy Land of the Pharaohs style storytelling, the opera was designed as a series of tableaux without narrative connection. The libretto comes from various historical sources and is, therefore, performed in several ancient languages. Though Akhnaten’s “Hymn to the Sun” and the spoken lines for The Scribe are performed in the native language of the audience.

Director Phelim McDermott conceives the opera as ritual and he fills Tom Pye’s colossal three-tiered set with the various strata of Egyptian society: the royal family, the court and priests, and the people. McDermott makes bold choices and creates powerful images.

The opening finds the body of Amenhotep III being prepared for burial. Doctors in lab coats attend the body, the court and the Pharaoh’s widow, Queen Tye appear. The chorus sings passages from The Egyptian Book of the Dead as canopic jars are ceremonially carried and the characters in a temple frieze come to life and begin to juggle.

Through this disorder, the figure of the new king, Amenhotep IV (it will be some years before he takes the name of Ahknaten) appears. Naked and vulnerable, he makes his way uncertainly through the indifferent crowd and is carefully robed in his coronation finery. Clad in golden attire, like a later French “Sun King,” he takes command of his domain.

Impressive as these intricate scenes are, the contrasting simplicity of the second act is even more effective. Like the moment when Akhnaten and his wife Nefertiti sing a passionate love duet dressed in filmy red robes which stretch across the considerable width of the Chandler stage. Or Akhnaten’s hymn, performed as he slowly mounts a flight of stairs in front of a mammoth sun. This is visual poetry.

Glass’ minimalist score may sound straightforward, but the hypnotic power of the music is dependent on constant subtle shifts in tone and rhythm. This makes singing any of the roles a formidable challenge. LA Opera is lucky to have found a cast that is up to the challenge.

Anthony Roth Costanzo is a fast-rising star in the countertenor firmament, and his memorable performance in the title role of Akhnaten proves why. He sings the tricky vocal lines with seemingly effortless command and his fearless commitment to the physical demands of the staging is remarkable.

The always reliable Stacey Tappan triumphs over a dowdy costume, unfurling her lovely soprano through the early portions of the opera as Akhnaten’s mother, Queen Tye. J’Nai Bridges proves an elegant and arresting Nefertiti with a rich and supple instrument. The court is strongly represented by Patrick Blackwell (Aye), Kihun Yoon (Horemhab) and Frederick Ballentine (High Priest), while a majestic Zachary James gamely intones the less-than-enlightening words of The Scribe.

Conductor Matthew Aucoin, an LA Opera Resident Artist for the next three seasons, conducted Glass’ score with a  fiercely controlled intelligence that allowed the music to soar, casting a spell over the audience.

The production is not to be missed, not only because of its rarity, but because so much of it is truly outstanding. It is three hours long, but you’ll never feel it. It has no supertitles for the ancient languages, but you won’t miss them.

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion   November 5 – 27, 2016




Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”


Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.