"Galileo Galilei" an Opera by Philip Glass

    Libretto by Mary Zimmerman, Philip Glass and Arnold Weinstein.

      Directed by Mary Zimmerman.

      The Eos Orchestra

      Set Design: Daniel Ostling

      Costume Design: Mara Blumenfeld.

      Projections Design: Michael Bodeen

      Conducted by William Lumpkin.

      Cast: Older Galileo: John Duykers, Pope & other roles: Andrew Funk, Younger Galileo and Salviate: Eugene Perry. Maria Celeste Galileo: Alicia Berneche and Elizabeth Reiter

      Brooklyn Academy of Music, October 3, 2002.

Review by T. Savage

In Galileo Galilei, Phillip Glass, Mary Zimmerman, Arnold Weinstein and many others present one of the most complicated life stories ever staged as an opera. The complexity is intensified by presenting Galileo's life backwards. Galileo's life has been staged once before in living memory by Bertold Brecht in his play "The Life of Galileo." In Brecht's version, the play ends with Galileo succeeding in smuggling his banned and recanted writings out of Italy so that they might be disseminated worldwide and for all time. This incident, the climax of Brecht's version and Galileo's redemption, isn't presented here. This version begins with Galileo as an old man, superbly sung and acted by John Duykers. Galileo is shown questioning why he has gone blind as an old man: is it for challenging the Christian God's astronomy as set forth in the Bible or because he lied about the true nature of the universe in recanting his discoveries in order to save his skin? Moving backwards, we then see the Recantation Scene. Titles appear on a large screen in the back replacing some scientific drawings. Galileo on his knees professes his faith while the chorus lies on the floor. One peculiarity of the libretto occurs here: why call the sun or the earth the center of the "world" rather than of the "universe" when the words "earth" and "world" are usually synonymous? The chorus of cardinals emphasizes the word "ambition" at one point as if describing the universe were an egotistical act. In this version of his life story, Galileo's daughter is dead by the time of his recantation. Another scene is announced by the word "pears." An excerpt from a letter is then broadcast in handwriting on a screen, making it hard to read. I've seen this done once before in an opera, not by Glass, called "Vermeer's Women," in which the effect, however truthful-seeming, was also hard to read. In Galileo, the orchestral music, though well-played, often recedes into a kind of sonic background. This highlights the singers and sometimes, the text.

 

Ambition rears its head again. In Galileo's earlier life, the Cardinal Barberini who wants to be Pope must wait until the then current Pope dies. He promises to raise Galileo up. He later imprisons him. (We've seen that already, though, since we're moving backwards.) It could be that, metaphorically, the world moves backwards when it suppresses Galileo's findings. Is that the point of the movement contrariwise through his life? Some Latin is sung without a translation. A lamp briefly becomes a pendulum when it is hit by a priest carrying a cross—a wonderful effect. The scene called "Presentation of the Telescope" is marvelous, in which Galileo shows off his invention to some aristocrats. This is followed by a hilarious opera within an opera, supposedly by Galileo's father, a real composer who wrote works that may have been what might be called perhaps pre-operas; the first real opera I know of anyway being Euridice by Jacopo Peri, not one of Galileo's works as is stated in the program. In fact, I could find no reference to the elder Galileo's works in any musical reference book I consulted, which leads me to suspect he was a transitional composer rather than a full-fledged composer of operas. I may be wrong here. Anyway, his imaginary opera was wonderful and suggested a kind of predecessor to what is now called chamber opera, that is, a staged work on a small scale. At the end of Glass' Galileo, the old astronomer appears again, this time no longer blind.

 

The production is beautiful. The sets are gorgeous and the use of titles truly unique. There is one lovely wordless bit of soprano singing by the daughter which sounds almost bel canto with the orchestra continuing Glass's rhythmic repetitions. During the Inquisition scene, the Inquisitors' words were broadcast on the wall behind them. From the balcony, where I happened to be sitting, some of these words were covered by a stage curtain and thus illegible. Galileo's equivocation is interesting here. "I never intended to see," he sings. He calls his book "playful." He then confesses to being "too desirous of glory."

 

In the scene called "Dialogue Concerning the Two Systems of the World," a framed picture of clouds comes down out of the sky. A wonderful poem is made out of Galileo's ideas at this moment on the screen before a theoretical discussion or debate takes over between characters called Salgredo and Salviati. The characters are standing in a gondola. Galileo's more complicated work on motion is visualized with balls and a character holding string or rope while another man speaks. It's fascinating to watch but difficult to understand. The balls are rolled down a wooden incline. The synopsis says these are Galileo's experiments concerning speed, acceleration, and motion. That may be, but whatever the conclusion was that Galileo reached evaded me.

 

Galileo Galilei is Phillip Glass' eighteenth opera. His total musical opus amounts to a repetition of repetition. Is he some musical Gertrude Stein or America's Verdi? He's certainly not our Richard Strauss. Did Galileo go blind because of his "sins," or because he lied about the solar system to save his life?--what signs of bad karma were Beethoven and Gabriel Faure being punished for when they went deaf? Glass has now written as many operas in 30 years as Strauss wrote in a much longer lifetime.

 

Were we given Galileo's life backwards with the end at the beginning and vice versa to imply that Galileo was going in circles just as the earth circles the sun?

 

Some of Galileo's more complex or arcane discoveries defied simple staging. The bit with balls and planes of wood proved impossible for me to understand, although it looked great, as did the turning of the chandelier into a pendulum. In the latter case, you didn't have to understand the theory behind it. With the balls and wood, some previous knowledge seemed required. As someone whose scientific knowledge is based mostly upon reading the Science articles that appear weekly in the New York Times, this seemed like asking a lot. The complex ideas presented or alluded to in the plays Proof and Copenhagen, as well as in the films Good Will Hunting and A Wonderful Mind, and even in Glass' landmark opera Einstein on the Beach were easier to grasp than Galileo's 16th Century discoveries. Why? (I should note that the presentation of Galileo's astronomical findings was quite clear.)

 

The most interesting and effective bit in the staging, for a poet like myself, came when a large picture frame filled with blue sky descended and the subtitles suddenly turned into a poem or poems that seemed as if modeled partly after William Carlos Williams' "variable foot" poems, a wonderful and intriguing effect any poet in the audience must have enjoyed. What audience members unfamiliar with modern poetry made of this effect I can't say. I hope they weren't left in the clouds as much as I was during the scene with balls and planes. Anyway, it felt like Zimmerman, Glass, and Weinstein were soaring at this point and I soared with them.

 

Like Jean-Luc Godard's recent film "In Praise of Love," Galileo Galilei confronts the audience with difficult ideas and unlike most operas, most theater, doesn't insist that life worth living is neat and simple. Few successful works of performing art force the witness to work so hard at comprehension. The fear of creators usually is that the audience will leave in the middle, many of whom did in the midst of "In Praise of Love.” None did that I saw at Galileo Galilei. No doubt the beautiful simplicity of Glass' music held the nonscientific members of the audience as did Zimmerman's spectacular effects. The characters always seemed real and never became the mere ciphers or symbols as they tended to often in Robert Wilson's collaborations with Glass although these, too, were thought-provoking in their time.

 

In 1976, Glass began his operatic career with Einstein on the Beach. He's written 18 operas in 26 years. In Einstein he was interested neither in biography nor history. Glass assumed Einstein's ideas to be commonplaces that didn't need to be represented. This isn't the case with any of Galileo's ideas except the heliocentric universe. In his first opera, Einstein became a mythic character. Galileo seems more real as a human being, both in the Glass-Zimmerman and Bertolt Brecht versions. Einstein: when anything moves faster, time slows down. In "Einstein on the Beach" distraction from a presumed but unpresented core of life-story and intellectual discovery becomes the core of action in place of a plot. In Galileo, the plot of a man's life is presented backwards. This may be done to challenge the audience's normal way of looking at things, particularly at a piece of theater. To excite thought and challenge the viewer rather than to provide sense of security about how we live our lives that is shattered and seen as wrong as soon as we are challenged by some unexpected turn of events or internal crisis is a noble aim for any work of art. Thus it is the very dislocations and discontinuities in Glass' operas that help us live our lives rather than the oversimplified linear plots most operas and plays present us.

 

By reaching directly into the subconscious and unconscious mind, the conscious mind is disarranged and then, hopefully, rearranged. A work of art working from this level always requires a reassuring conclusion. Otherwise, someone who opens her or himself completely to it could get lost in disorder and never emerge. Total freedom works only temporarily and must be resolved in some human and humane fashion or the sense of self is destroyed. This isn't nirvana, which is a transcendence. Thus the fear inspired in some by these kinds of works (Einstein on the Beach, Gertrude Stein, Finnegan's Wake) has its basis in a psychological reality which all makers of this kind of creation successfully confront by bringing their opus to a successful conclusion. In Galileo, another problem is presented: the overburdening of the mind with astronomical and physical (as in physics) detail which verges upon incomprehensibility but fortunately doesn't stay there for long. If one treats Einstein on the Beach as a strange and intriguing, inspiring dream, one can absorb it with Glass' ecstatic music.

 

Exact meaning is less important to Glass than knowing that the work means something and allowing oneself to be moved by it in spite of not understanding it completely. This may be the way to approach Galileo, also at whatever level of intelligence, awareness, concentration and insight one may bring to the theatrical experience of it on the day one attends . That there is more to the experience of any great work of art than mere intellectual understanding is almost a given. All great works when new tend to confound our understanding based on our previous experiences. If we open ourselves to the new potentials, we grow intellectually and emotionally; if not, we close ourselves off and remain content with the great works of the past which are always more easy to mentally digest.

 

Glass insists his music doesn't repeat. (This is hard to hear.) Only once have I experienced this effect—during a concert of his piano music at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few years ago when I realized that the undertones in the piano did create a kind of infinite variety within the repetition. He may also be referring to the changing cumulative effect of the repetitions. In his orchestral and operatic works this experience is much more difficult to hear. That does not mean that these variations are not there in his major works. It may just require expansion of consciousness in the connections between our brains and our ears. Then we are invited to remake of art a purely intuitive experience. At this point, the reviewer could be forced to cease being an intermediary between the work and its potential audience and allow a healthy, open silence to take the place of his or her explanatory attempts.

 

There's also the music's hypnotic effect. Minimalist music by Glass and others was sometimes called "trance music" when it was first heard.

 

Paradoxically, the music may be both repetitious and not. This may explain why Glass' music is sometimes presented as a Buddhist teaching as it was at a Buddhist "Change Your Mind" day two years ago in Central Park, where Glass played for a few minutes on the piano. Not only was a mantric, although wordless effect achieved, it may be that the very idea of exact repetition was being challenged on a level of experience other than that which we normally have.. How may of the attendant mediators grasped this aspect of the music, I have no idea.

 

It may also be that the cumulative effect of the so-called repetitions changes with each repetition, thus what one hears changes. This may be partially the cause of the hypnotic effect Minimalist music can have on those new to it who are nevertheless open to experiencing it without judgment or interpretation. Those who insist on going with the initial reaction their thinking minds may have that the music is boring will never allow themselves to experience these things, however. Mostly they return to Brahms, Schoenberg, Puccini, popular music, or whatever their prime musical interest happens to be. Whether hypnosis is the key to the highest aesthetic experience is debatable. However, repetition is a large part of all forms of music and seems present in many spiritual practices as well.

 

It may even be that there is a greater degree of clarity beyond the hypnosis wherein a distance between the music and its hearer is reestablished. At this point, as Glass says, the music is "just there." This is a very calm and contented state beyond the usual excitement and seduction music offers us. This may be what the music in Galileo offers us as it sometimes disappears into the fabric of the total theatrical experience. While this might disturb some unused to it, it can also engender a greater degree of detached satisfaction than the stimulus to our senses aesthetic experiences normally provide (the "high", so to speak). We both cease to hear it and still do. You may object that the music in elevators and supermarkets sometimes has this effect. But to make awareness of the transition from intoxication to mere acceptance the aim of an artistic experience is truly unique, if that is in fact, the aim of an artistic experiential "meaning" of the music itself.

 

With attachments to sounds that we like comes aversion to sounds we dislike. In the noisy world in which most of us live, developing equanimity to most sonic inputs is becoming harder and harder. To the cultivated music lover, developing even a few moments of equanimity (just allowing whatever is there to be there without judgments, neither approval nor condemnation) is especially hard. If that is what Glass' music asks us to do then, from a spiritual perspective, this music is truly marvelous and could even help some of us to advance beyond our own reactions to whatever sensual input is before us at any moment in time.

 

Beyond this point, it then becomes possible to hear every sound which reaches one's ears as music, an experience which was apparently central to the way the great John Cage experienced his day to day life. One usually doesn't think of Cage's and Glass' music as having very much in common. But if the intended effect or end effect is this change in consciousness as to how we perceive all sounds, then these true musical opposites do meet, at last, in the equanimous, attentive, concentrated, but no less discerning mind. Thus music ceases to be mere brain candy and can become a vehicle for liberation, at least from reaction for or against whatever arrives at one's ears.

 

Returning, briefly, to the subject of the opera and Brecht's play, the central philosophical problem posed by the life of Galileo seems to have been: "How much freedom do we give up in order to secure our physical survival?" Unless we are born independently wealthy or have extremely good luck, this is a question most of our lives present us with everyday when we give our time and energy to meaningless, exhausting jobs so that we can feed ourselves and pay the rent. In Galileo's case, the problem seems to involve larger concerns than the frustrations of most ordinary lives. In order to keep from being executed by the Inquisition and to continue his researches, he was forced to recant his revolutionary discovery of proof that the planet Earth moves around the sun. In Brecht's play(until recently the only major stage version of Galileo's life), the problem is resolved at the end of the play when the astronomer entrusts a copy of his great book to be smuggled out of Italy and into Holland, where his ideas have some precedent in the researches of Copernicus and where they can be freely disseminated to the rest of the world. In Glass' opera it is less clear how the man redeems his lying about the discovery that defined his life. At the end of the opera, the elderly Galileo is miraculously restored to sight and joins the young adult Galileo and the version of himself as a child. In soaring tones and a truly marvelous finale, both in the music and the production aspects of the total work, Galileo is redeemed as an immortal after death by the importance and beauty of his ideas. This sounds like the dream every artist has for him or herself but it's probably also what scientists wish for, if their lives have yielded any discoveries of significance. This is the last of many complex ideas presented in Galileo Galilei by Glass, Zimmerman, and Weinstein.

 

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