A Composer's Notes: Philip Glass and the Making of an Opera

7.51 h 27 min198613+
A Composer's Notes takes us on an intimate journey alongside Philip Glass during the production of his third opera, Akhnaten. The composer shares his creative process and gives us a glimpse into the world of rehearsal and performance. The film also looks back at two earlier Glass music-theater works: Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha offering a broad depiction of his applauded career.
Michael Blackwood
Philip GlassRichard EinhornDavid Freeman
Arts, Entertainment, and CultureDocumentary
English [CC]
Audio languages
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Supporting actors
Robert IsraelAchim FreyerChristopher KeeneDennis Russell DaviesChristopher RobsonJohn DeMainConstance deJongShalom GoldmanPaul EsswoodRichard Riddell
Michael Blackwood
Michael Blackwood Productions
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4.6 out of 5 stars

27 global ratings

  1. 77% of reviews have 5 stars
  2. 14% of reviews have 4 stars
  3. 5% of reviews have 3 stars
  4. 0% of reviews have 2 stars
  5. 4% of reviews have 1 stars
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Top reviews from the United States

Brian MorganReviewed in the United States on September 21, 2015
4.0 out of 5 stars
"Hymn to the Sun"
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In 1984, Philip Glass had the world and the American premieres of his opera, "Akhnaten," within a span of seven months, in two very different productions. The argument of the work was of the Pharaoh who died circa 1336 BC, and who introduced monotheism to ancient Egypt. Unfortunately, following his death Egypt reverted to polytheism.

The first performance of Glass's work was at the Stuttgart State Opera, with Paul Esswood (who also starred in the 1987 studio recording, pictured) in the title role, in Achim Freyer's production. At the Houston Grand Opera, Kammersänger Christopher Robson portrayed the Pharaoh, with Phyllis Treigle (early in her career) as his daughter Bekhetaten ("the servant of Aten," the sun god), directed by David Freeman. The present writer saw the latter production in the theatre.

Michael Blackwood's 1985 documentary film, "A Composer's Notes: Philip Glass and the Making of an Opera," involves these double-premieres. Having the composer as narrator makes for a rather dry start, but momentum builds when we arrive at the rehearsal period. The discussions with the composer and the two directors is instructive. They are looking for guidance, but it becomes clear that Glass expects them to arrive at their own interpretation. Freyer, a protégé of Bertolt Brecht, confounds Glass while trying to draw parallels between the ancient monarch and psychopathic dictators of the twentieth century.

Freyer is incontestably the greater of the two directors. American audiences may know him best as director (and designer--he began his career as a painter) of the Los Angeles Opera's controversial production of "Der Ring des Nibelungen," with Plácido Domingo as Siegmund. As we see in the film, Freyer staged the premiere with beautiful choreography, with a abstract turn toward the mystical. Freeman directed the Houston production in an arch-realistic fashion, surely missing the point. Following the beautiful "Hymne au soleil" (set to the Pharaoh's own text!), he seemed to have run out of even Method Acting ideas. The costuming and make-up of Akhnaten, however, trying to recreate his "bizarre, strikingly androgynous" form depicted in contemporaneous art, was shocking and somewhat marvelous, at least in the recesses of the theatre.

Do doubt due to budgetary concerns, in Houston we have film only of the rehearsal period, and are instead given many photographs of the performance, many of which involve Miss Treigle.

"Akhnaten" is, as with most of Glass's operas, musically simple yet theatrically complex.
5 people found this helpful
j cReviewed in the United States on October 18, 2020
5.0 out of 5 stars
Terrific complement to watching the Met HD Live production
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I bought this DVD after watching the stunning Met HD Live production that was broadcast in November 2019. My primary goal was to know more about the production of this interesting opera. This documentary by Michael Blackwood blew me away in both depth and density. By the way, it is a 1985 production, so we should not expect old footage to look anything like the stuff we stream on YouTube today. But the coherency and cogency of the narrative is so compelling -- and following the life of Philip Glass as he developed dual productions in Stuttgart and Houston for Akhnaten back in 1983, is just such precious footage that provides a unique historical perspective.
CanticleReviewed in the United States on October 16, 2014
5.0 out of 5 stars
Wonderful Story of Two Different Productions of Akhnaten
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I have seen this film two or three times in theater screenings and it is my favorite film about Philip Glass. The main story here is the divergent and creative results in two different productions of Glass' third opera Akhnaten. One production is in Stuttgart directed by Achim Freyer and the other is done by the Houston Opera directed by David Freeman.
The Houston production is a more realistic and perhaps didactic approach. By contrast the Stuttgart production is dream like, almost hallucinatory with novel uses of stage lighting and costume choices. The point which filmmaker Michael Blackwood makes very clear is the widely different interpretations of this work.
A good part of the film follows Philip Glass and his ensemble on their tour bus and in various settings and gives a decent sketch of how Glass came to be able to work full time as a composer. Many other artists including Dennis Russell Davies and Christopher Keene comment on the efforts to produce the music. A very entertaining film whose ending was always a bit sad to me as it suggested that Glass would be spending considerably less time with his ensemble. (It was through the Philip Glass Ensemble concerts that I developed my ravenous taste for Glass' music and, fortunately for me, the ensemble did do quite a bit more touring.)
The only issue I have is that there doesn't seem to have been much effort to clean up this print. It looks pretty much like it did in the theater projections complete with fuzz on the lens at times.
7 people found this helpful
WILLIANS A GUAREGUAReviewed in the United States on February 18, 2016
3.0 out of 5 stars
Three Stars
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It is a good document about a great creator. But the DVD is poorly edited.
4 people found this helpful
Steve SchindlerReviewed in the United States on May 20, 2014
5.0 out of 5 stars
Time to hang out with Philip!
Sure, the picture quality is not much better than the original VHS release was way back in the mid-1980's. Perhaps the original master tape was not available. At least this DVD will not require an old VCR to watch, or possibly eat the brittle old tape (this happened to my original VHS copy of another Philip Glass video, 4 American Composers, towards the end when I happened to be copying it from VHS to DVD for safekeeping).

Anyway, this video is a classic hour and a half with Philip Glass while he was working on the third in the "Portrait" Trilogy of operas begun with Einstein on the Beach, followed by Satyagraha, and then Aknhaten, in the early 1980's. Philip Glass is a deep and fascinating guy and I would love to hang out on trips like this with him! It's also so cool to see him composing Akhnaten at the piano in his house. Aknhaten simply kicks you know what and is an amazing work! In the video, you will hang out with Phil as he goes on trips to India and other places while working on Akhnaten and to put it simply, this video is a must-have to Glass fans. You will not regret purchasing this DVD if you are a fan of Glass and of course, if you love the opera itself.
5 people found this helpful
scarecrowReviewed in the United States on April 19, 2002
4.0 out of 5 stars
not to be missed by denizens of the Glassite Universe
it's deplorable that not every one of Glass's operas are not available on VHS or DVD. Nothing is! Why? He sells well in the market?
"Akhnaten" is actually the only Glass music I've grown to admire, the first two operas 'Einstein on The Beach' and 'Satyagraha' were learning experiences for everyone, the early pillars of this 'Trilogy'. Akhnaten is as Wagner's Parsifal a summation and coagulation of creative materials only tried in the first two operas. Here Glass now actually reused material from Satyagraha for Akhnaten where this work settles into the very well known cloistered world of 19th Century opera with duets, and discreet self-contained arias,trios, and chorus declamations.
Glass's achievement is that his operas however are (as he says himself here) music theatre, not operas, where the singing is the performance, the content is in the singing, not the content of its text projected with meaning cause and affect, goal oriented plot, which certainly the audience never comprehends,Glass here makes the timbre of the singing the content, and this is why I think we are compelled by it. It eradicates the sense of time, of knowing of being within a particular place at a particualr time, Violetta's concubinage Paris party, or in front of Brunnhilde's growing fiery funeral tomb rock.
We see Glass on tour traveling by bus with his group,arduously giving lectures,not on this VHS,but as part of his performances. I take it,Glass didn't like speaking,he didn't seem to summon much enthusiasm for it. He is a overlabored, dull,timid speaker. I think he thinks more about his work,and this part of his creativity hasn't made it through the technique of public speaking.
He does however speak very well about his work to the camera as we follow him to India and Egypt visiting Akhnaten's one room museum.
We are also let in on high level meetings amongst the Glass cadre of creators,sometimes at greasy spoon-like restaurants in New York City,or sitting around someone's apartment with cheap styrofoam coffee cups. Writers as Constance de Jong, stage directors Achim Freyer and David Freeman all speak well of their work on Glass. Certainly Robert Wilson who he met for lunch every Thursday in New York.Also Conductor Dennis Russell Davies are all here a devoted champion of the Glass world of expression. We see all of them in rehearsals at The Houston Opera Company, John DeMain a more manstream Music Director.And wonderful singers as counter-tenor Paul Esswood who played Aky and Christopher Robson.Also wonderfully sensuous Nefertitis as Milagro Vargas and Marta Senn we see in rehearsals. You really come away from this VHS with quite a bit of useful information on how not only a particular opera is produced and rehearsed but the initial budding beginnings of a work, its humble opaque incompleteedness;As for instance two years of work,research ocean hopping preceeded before a Director for the opera even contemplates the work with Glass.
Glass very much knows what he wants most of the time, and fends off any broader all encompassing questions as Achim Freyer's question through a translator on the political dimensions of Akhnaten,comparisons with Stalin or other tyrants. And Glass usefully replies"(paraphrasing) I don't think in such terms. . .,let each audience listener come to their own meaning. . . " The work is not a labyrinth of expressive dramatic openendedness. It is possible to think a little more deeply on the social and political dimensions of ancient Egypt. In fact that is whjere the real interesting [parts of ancient civilizations reside. The problem becomes, the more we think in those terms, the more we see the barren incompletedness and skewed historical aspects the operas avoid and never deal with.Opera or for Glass music-drama is about a "buzz" ( a Peter Sellars term)take the "Buzz" and go with it, or else you have nothing. The reality was that the Glass team never actually knew who Akhnaten was really, only faint,incomplete data. He had breasts,had a powerful intellect,and a deep expressiveness, was perhaps misshapened judging from the statues in Egypt of him, with thunder thighs,distended,an almost unacceptable pear shaped body, meaning not interesting to look at,yet seductive oddly.
We also see Glass at his writing desk and at the piano, reflecting on the wonderous aesthetic darkness that 'Akhnaten' had reflected and that he was able to capture, largley through minor modes of tonality.
9 people found this helpful
SchpilReviewed in the United States on May 18, 2014
1.0 out of 5 stars
An insult to the fans!
Email to Orange Mountain Music:

I've just bought A Composer's Notes DVD through Amazon.co.uk and I must say I am shocked!
This DVD is VHS quality. Has there been any attempts at restoring the original tapes?
From what I can see, it seems it has been a simple case of transfer from a VHS release.
The back cover of the DVD could have warned buyers from such a poor quality...
Nowadays a very large majority of DVDs are released with English subtitles. It would have been nice of you to offer them - especially since Mr Glass often mumbles.
Again, the back cover could have mentioned the langage, subtitles or not, the length, etc.
The DVD I bought almost looks like a bootleg!
I think that this release is an insult to the fans.
6 people found this helpful
R. GuerinReviewed in the United States on July 28, 2014
5.0 out of 5 stars
Amazing to see Glass composing Akhnaten
Incredible document
One person found this helpful
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