© Tony Lewis
© Tony Lewis
Contemporary dance choreographer and director Leigh Warren created productions for the State Opera of South Australia of Philip Glass’ Akhnaten (2002), Einstein on the Beach (2006) and Satyagraha (2007). In August, these three “portrait operas” were presented as a cycle in Adelaide, revived by Warren who took time to talk to Bachtrack about the what makes Glass’ works so great, as well as about the challenges inherent in staging these operas.

Did you consciously make links between these three operas as work progressed? How did your experiences from Akhnaten influence your work on the other two pieces?

The links between the operas are stylistic. I believe they were created by a process I engaged in with designer Mary Moore.

We would set up a meeting and talk through a piece until I had explained my ideas and evolved a concept which Mary believed had substantial enough rigour to develop a design from. Once Mary had come up with a design concept, we entered into further debate until the direction and the design fitted together like two parts of a puzzle.

<i>Akhnaten</i> © Darren Williams Photography
© Darren Williams Photography

As a choreographer, dance/ movement is integral to these productions. How do you think dance enhances the audience experience of these works?

The dance/ movement content does a number of things to enhance and provide meaning where it is complex or obscure in the libretto. Often the dancers act as metaphor to what is happening in each scene, physicalising the ideas and action that is inferred. They are a nexus between the music and the libretto.

The choreography adds dramatic momentum and support transitions contributing to the continuous flow of the work.

What make these such great operas to direct?

Each piece is a gem to direct because the subject is clear. For me, Akhnaten is about a religious vision and his wife’s unconditional belief in him, along with their astonishing rise to power and equally dramatic fall from it! Akhnaten was clearly a man ahead of his time – fast forward a thousand years plus and we can appreciate his conclusions of the value of the sun to life on the planet and for a world built on co-operation to succeed rather that conflict.

<i>Einstein on the Beach</i> © Darren Williams Photography
Einstein on the Beach
© Darren Williams Photography

“This is a production that has been created by thinking outside the square.” is what our reviewer wrote of Einstein. It is so different to other any other operatic experience – so how should directors (and audiences) approach it?

In Einstein on the Beach, Glass says it all in the last minute of the opera: ”two lovers sat on a park bench”. It questions how to measure John’s love for his partner. We may have an equation for energy, but there is no equation for measuring love. Einstein’s own humour and insights seem to fit hand in glove with the four hour plus post modern masterpiece, which is an interplay between text, numbers and musical scales. Einstein's equation “E= mc²” inspired me to explore mass and energy in Parts 1 and 2 and the energy and light in Parts 3 and 4.

Einstein on the Beach is full of structures and non-linear thought. It would seem no matter how random it may seem, correlations occur, between the mathematics inherent in the music and the libretto. Philip manipulates these elements to create shimmering musical equations, constantly shifting and surprising us.

<i>Satyagraha</i> © Darren Williams Photography
© Darren Williams Photography

Satyagraha is overwhelmingly moving on stage – especially in Act III. How does this opera challenge a director?

Satyagraha is the most narrative of the three with political philosophy at the core of the tale. It is a portrait of courage, conviction and ultrasound wisdom – of self sacrifice for the good of others. Gandhi's early journey required him to reach an enlightened and yet totally approachable place simultaneously. The set represents the seven steps of enlightenment and sets up the graphic realisation planned for the vision of his thoughts taking flight.

What challenges do these works make on performers and on audiences?

Each opera challenges the performers in a myriad ways. The esprit de corps is essential if any of them are to succeed. It is the chorus which pumps the life though the pieces and without their absolute focus the danger to lose momentum is ever present. They are the nexus between the music and the staging. Each of these pieces is like an olympic event just to sing, then they have mise en scene and choreography to perform as well!

The challenge for the audience is that this is a very adult world. There are no fairies or folktales – this is gritty and sublime stuff folded together. What one can do is 'let go', set the eyes, ears and mind free and let it wash over and through you, provoking and delighting, finally leaving you transported in every sense.