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Akhnaten

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The Egyptian Pharaoh Akhnaten was controversial in his lifetime and today, over three millennia after his reign, Egyptologists still argue theories about his life and relative importance. After his death, succeeding Pharaohs did their best to erase every trace of the man who had dared to displace the many gods of Egypt and create the first monotheistic religion in recorded history.

Philip Glass may be an acknowledged master today but, when his opera AKHNATEN premiered in 1984, he was still the “bad boy” of Minimalism who had dared to invade the world's opera houses. AKHNATEN was the final piece in a trilogy of biographical operas by Glass which included EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH and SATYAGRAPHA. Their original productions broadened the scope of what could be considered operatic, and their staging and theatrical innovation revolutionized the way music drama is performed.

The ever ambitious Long Beach Opera staged the first full-scale production of AKHNATEN on the West Coast and put their unmistakable stamp on the piece. If the result wasn't quite as electrifying as their season opener, MEDEA, this has more to do with the difference in the emotional timbre of the operas.

By any definition Akhnaten was an idiosyncratic figure, so Glass and his three co-librettists chose to honor this with a deliberately unconventional opera. The libretto was crafted from existing letters and documents sung in their original languages— the individual scenes set by a Scribe who introduces the action in the language of the audience. Action is probably a misnomer here. The aim was to create a series of fragmentary tableaux from the Pharaoh's life rather than to construct a coherent narrative. The result is a progression of  non-dramatic episodes as inflexible and stylized as an Egyptian wall painting. Glass also conceived Akhnaten as a countertenor, a choice far less unique today than when the opera was composed.

Once again,  Artistic Director  Andreas Mitisik  serves as director, conductor and designer for the production. Knowing that the grandeur of Ancient Egypt is beyond the means of the company, Mitisik wisely turns to Frieder Weiss for an interactive video design which becomes the de facto background for the performance. The resulting light show is occasionally distracting, but it also bringst an otherworldly beauty to moments like Akhnaten's “Hymn to the Sun.” Nannette Brodie's choreography, executed by members of her company, adds greatly to the tone of the staging, while Mitisik's simple, stylized movements complement the mesmeric quality of Glass' score.

At the second and final performance, which I attended, the announced Akhnaten, Jochen Kowalski, was  indisposed. Darryl Taylor came to the rescue and sang the role, while Mr. Kowalski walked through the blocking. Both acquit themselves beautifully and, in an opera already replete with Brechtian alienating techniques, the switch may even have enhanced the experience. Taylor sings intelligently and with such full-voiced ardor that it becomes difficult to credit he had not rehearsed the role.

Peabody Southwell continues to impress with her commanding stage presence and rich, velvety mezzo, making her a perfect Nefertiti. As Akhnaten's Mother, Oxana Senina  displays rock solid  technique and effortless high notes. The secondary roles are ably dispatched by Roberto Perlas Gomez and Ralph Cato as Horemhab and Aye, respectively, while Tyler Thompson's Amon unveils the kind of clarion tenor we long to hear in larger roles.

The Chorus seems a bit under-powered and occasionally find themselves adrift in the intricacies of Glass' difficult music. The orchestra, under Mitisek's direction creates a firm foundation on which AKHNATEN can easily stand.

Terrace Theater, Long Beach, March 19 & 27, www.longbeachopera.org.

 

Spotlight

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.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

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.