The digital opera Monsters of Grace was premiered in 1998, a collaboration between Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, twenty years after their ground-breaking work Einstein on the Beach. Co-commissioned by the UCLA Center for Performing Arts and a dozen other institutions (including Wolf Trap, one of the many places it was performed in 1998 to 1999), the work was widely considered a failure because the visual aspect, a full-length computer animation feature, was far more complicated to produce than the creative team expected. Robert Wilson ended up washing his hands of most of the visual decisions, leaving the filmmakers, Jeff Kleiser and Diana Walczak, to make of his designs what they would (video clips from the MOG animation are available at the Synthespians Flash-heavy Web site). Now, almost ten years later, Glass has released a recording of his musical score for the project, on his private label, Orange Mountain Music.
Philip Glass, Monsters of Grace, Philip Glass Ensemble (released October 9, 2007)
Orange Mountain Music 0041
The title of the project comes from Wilson's own malaprop (a distortion of Hamlet's line "Angels and Ministers of grace, defend us!"), and it provides the kernel-idea behind the work. The "libretto" is a set of lyrics ostensibly by the 13th-century Turkish philosopher Jelaluddin Rumi, in an English "translation" by Coleman Barks. Barks has helped engineer the recent wave of interest in Rumi's poetry through his rather creative editions, although he does not speak Persian and creates his "translations" by simply reworking older English translations. Unfortunately for the real Rumi, the founder of the Mevlevi Order (now commonly known as the Whirling Dervishes), his work has now been inextricably associated with Deepak Chopra, Madonna, Oliver Stone, and others who have popularized his work. For a related phenomenon, see the must-read article on Kahlil Gibran (Prophet Motive, January 7) by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker.
Glass's meditative, pulsating music is better suited to Sufi mysticism (or, rather an American New Age approximation of it) than what Christopher Theofanidis composed for his Rumi-based choral work The Here and Now from a few years ago. Without being able to comment on the visual component of this "cyberopera," Glass's score is one of the most appealing he has produced in the last decade. The basic instrumental palate of woodwinds, various sizes played by the three-member core of the Philip Glass Ensemble, is augmented by synthesized sounds from the keyboards of Michael Riesman and Glass himself, which help tilt the colors evocatively toward the East.
Glass's usual vocal collaborators are here, too, in all of their clear-voiced abstraction, closely miked as they must be to capture their fragile sound. The treble voices, soprano Marie Mascari and mezzo-soprano Alexandra Montano, sound as much like astral twins as they ever have, although baritone Gregory Purnhagen, who has quite a few solo moments, has a voice that pleases more as part of the quartet. This score also reminds of my recent assessment of Glass as the modern counterpart of Antonio Vivaldi: Glass's music appeals widely, is mostly programmatic and rhythmically activated, trades on formulas in easy-to-understand forms, and is characterized by a high degree of self-borrowing. If you do not like Glass's music, this is not for you, but if you are interested in the development of opera as a modern genre, you should give a listen.