The Met makes history again with broadcast of 'Voyage'

October 12, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Only once before has the regular Saturday afternoon broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera ever been moved to another day. That was 26 years ago when the Met opened its new quarters at Lincoln Center and celebrated the occasion with a nationwide evening broadcast of the world premiere of Samuel Barber's "Anthony and Cleopatra." Tonight the Met makes history once more with a broadcast of the world premiere of "The Voyage" at 8 (WBJC-91.5-FM).

"The Voyage" is a big deal because it was commissioned by the Met to celebrate Columbus' "discovery" of the New World on the 500th anniversary of the very day that the Genoese mariner first sighted land; it's a big deal because the composer is Philip Glass, whose first opera, "Einstein on the Beach," helped revive 18 years ago what was then considered a dead art form; and it's a big deal because the librettist is playwright David Henry Hwang, whose 1988 Tony Award-winning "M. Butterfly" is already regarded by some as one of the finest English-language plays of the second half of the 20th century.

In "M. Butterfly" (as in several other remarkable plays), Hwang tips the apple carts of racial, sexual and imperialist stereotyping. But if you think "The Voyage" will indulge in the Columbus bashing that has become fashionable in recent years, better think again.

"When I wrote this in '89, it was clear to me that there would be important revisionism about Columbus," says Hwang. "He's always been more of a symbol than a person -- and as we perceive ourselves differently, it seemed obvious to me that we would perceive Columbus differently. In dealing with the subject, however, the politics behind the exploration seemed less interesting than the complications of the man and the complications in the act of exploration itself. It's too simplistic to label Columbus a criminal. He committed an act which led to horrible suffering, but it's not as if this was an isolated event in human history. When you get to Columbus' line in the final scene about exploration itself making his sins obsolete, it means what we achieve in life absolves us in some degree of the mistakes we have made and the blunders we fall into on our way there."

"The Voyage" is indeed about much more than Columbus himself. It opens with a prologue in which a disabled scientist, seated in a wheelchair, descends from the stars in a discourse about how human beings -- despite their failings and infirmities -- have always sought to follow where their vision leads. The first act takes place 50,000 years ago at the end of the ice age when an alien space ship crashes and encounters the first Earth human beings. The second act is about Columbus' first voyage and his doubts about what he is trying to achieve. And the third act, which takes place in 2092, concerns the archaeological discovery of artifacts from the alien space ship -- a discovery that once again results in another voyage, this time to the stars.

"I was interested in allegory, not history, when I wrote this opera," says Glass, who actually created the story from which Hwang constructed the libretto. "I specifically wanted David for this piece because he's not a white European male and I knew he would bring a much-needed perspective to the work -- neither of us wanted to do just another Columbus piece."

Glass also wanted Hwang because he had just collaborated successfully with him on a music theater piece called "1,000 Airplanes on the Roof" when he received the Met commission for "Voyage" in 1988. Although the two would seem to have a lot of differences -- Hwang is known for the subtlety of his verbal structures and Glass for the mesmerizing simplicity of his musical ones -- they actually have a lot in common. Glass is a composer who has spent his lifetime in the theater and the 34-year-old playwright is an expert violinist.

"I like David a lot," says Glass. "We now have a past, a present and we're going to have a future." (Their next collaboration will be a chamber-opera treatment of Hwang's one-act play, "The House of Sleeping Beauties.")

Composers and librettists do not always get along this well. Puccini, for example, drove his librettists to distraction, hectoring them about the need for ever greater concision and demanding that they makechanges in the tiniest details.

"Philip's very generous in that respect," Hwang says. "I have a tendency to want to cut and Philip will always say, 'But that's my favorite part!' "

In working on the libretto, Hwang says his first concern was making words serve the music.

"I thought a certain sparseness was necessary, both in terms of setting and given Philip's musical style -- he likes to repeat things and let words slowly twist with his changing harmonies. And I tried to work with vowels; any time I could end with a word that ended in a vowel, I did."

This was the first time that Hwang had written a libretto ("1,000 Airplanes" is a spoken monologue to music) and it was the first time that his creative role was a subsidiary one.

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