The arrival of Philip Glass

Geraldine Segal

October 13, 1992|By Geraldine Segal

PHILIP Glass arrives at the Metropolitan Opera this week -- a long way from Baltimore and Howard streets, where his father owned record stores in the 1950s, and a shorter way from the Manhattan taxi he used to drive to make ends meet. To commemorae the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the New World, the Metropolitan commissioned Mr. Glass to write a special opera. The work, " The Voyage," has its premiere this week in New York. It is about "the idea of exploration and discovery," according to the composer, who was born in Baltimore in 1937.

At the age of 8 he began studying the flute at the Peabody Conservatory. As a young man, he studied at the University of Chicago and ultimately received a degree in mathematics and philosophy. He studied in Paris in the 1960s with the composer Nadia Boulanger, and it was then that he took an interest in Eastern music and such Indian musicians as Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha.

But Mr. Glass has never been a conventional composer. His work has sometimes been classified as "minimalism," but there is nothing minimal about his accomplishments.

This week's isn't Mr. Glass' first time at the Met. His opera, "Einstein on the Beach," written in collaboration with Robert Wilson, was performed twice at that prestigious house with the Philip Glass Ensemble in November 1976. Both of the performances were sold out.

But in his book, "Music by Philip Glass," the composer says he had trouble obtaining tickets for his own family, arriving from Baltimore, and had to get in the standing-room line to pick up a couple of extras. The opera was performed during two "dark" nights at the Met and was not a part of the opera's repertory.

"Einstein on the Beach" was a critical success, but it left Mr. Glass and his company thousands of dollars in debt, and he returned to moonlighting as a taxi driver in New York City. In his book, Mr. Glass says that a a passenger once saw his name on the taxi license and said, "Young man, do you realize you have the same name as a very famous composer?"

Mr. Glass also worked as a plumber and once arrived at the home of a well-known art critic to repair a dishwasher. "You are an artist. I won't permit you to work on my dishwasher," the critic insisted.

Philip Glass, always on the cutting edge of music -- he produced a work with the poet Allen Ginsburg called "Hydrogen Jukebox" -- has written two other operas that form a trilogy with "Einstein on the Beach." They are "Satyagraha," based on a period in the life of Gandhi and sung in Sanskrit, and "Akhnaten," titled for an Egyptian pharaoh.

The composer's father owned downtown record stores in the '50s and '60s. It was always a joy for me to venture into his shop and browse.

And if anyone takes a cab to the Met this week, Philip Glass won't be the driver. He's already arrived.

Geraldine Segal, an opera buff, writes from Baltimore.

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