Glass’s Opera Revolution

Take an old black and white film, strip its sound and replace it with an opera. With Beauty and the Beast this is exactly what Philip Glass has done. Now America’s most successful living composer talks to Neil Evans about creating the most innovative music theatre since Wagner.

Imagine watching a film and listening to an opera at the same time. Philip Glass has turned this vision into a reality with Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film La Belle et la Bête, out on CD this month. ‘I am just amazed it wasn’t done 40 years ago,’ says the 58-year-old American composer. ‘All you need is a stopwatch and a lot of patience and the complete music drama that Wagner was aiming for is now happening.’

It involves completely wiping out the original sound – music and spoken word – writing a new operatic score and synchronising it precisely with the film. He started last year with Orpheus, a straight opera made from the script of another Cocteau film. Now, with Beauty and the Beast, he has taken it a stage further and used the image itself for performance. ‘I don’t want to sound pretentious, but I can help bring film back from the commercial world to the world of art. By doing this, I can also revitalise opera. So here you have two characters, the live performance one and the film one, and you begin to see it as one character played by two persons. The singers have a formal staging, portraying emotionally the parts they are singing so that they are a kind of visual counterpart to the characters on screen.’

‘I was afraid the beauty of the film would overwhelm the singers,’ he says, ‘but it didn’t. There are moments when Beauty is on screen and our Beauty is looking up at her, and I could almost cry. Then there’s the scene where the Beast is dying and our Beast is singing, and the two of them together make you realise that this is a form of music theatre and not just a film.’

It isn’t, of course, the first time that music and film have been used together. Only last year Steve Reich’s The Cave used a screen with singing actors, and Glass himself made his reputation with the film soundtrack to Koyaanisqatsi. But there’s hardly more technical wizardry than here. ‘People must think we’re some kind of technocranks,’ says Glass, ‘who just fiddle around with masterpieces using calculators and computers. But to make the opera we had to silence the film. I wrote down the libretto, which is not the same as the published one, since I wanted the words which were in the film. I timed every word and placed it mathematically in the score.’

The synchronisation of the vocal line with film speech works well and Glass is happy that the constraints of transposing a vocal line onto a speech pattern has not affected his freedom in writing for voice. Satyagraha was the first opera in which he says he began to think of the vocal line as floating and free from its harmonic and rhythmic setting. ‘Now, ten operas later, I have a distinct vocal style along with a real confidence about writing for the voice. In Beauty and the Beast, the vocal line has begun to shine and it draws you into the atmosphere through the voice.’

More than a good story
But why did Glass choose for his new medium an ‘art house classic’ rather than a contemporary Hollywood blockbuster? Beauty and the Beast – like Romeo and Juliet and Tristan and Isolde – is one of the great love stories, but for Glass, more importantly, it is also the perfect allegory of the creative process. ‘Cocteau always used these stories as allegories for creativity. Beauty only falls in love with the Beast after he has given her up. It’s about the transition from the ordinary to the transcendent, or half-beast, half-human – which is what we are – to the state of nobility achieved by the artist – which is what the beast becomes at the end.’

In the middle of the film the Beast reveals that his magic powers come from five elements which, for Glass, become potent symbols: the rose for beauty, the mirror for transcendence, the key for technique, the glove for nobility and the horse for strength through determination. ‘Love is supplied by Beauty herself,’ says Glass. ‘But it’s not ordinary love – it’s the generous, altruistic love that the Beast kindles when he releases her to visit her father.’

Sound without vision?
But, with the CD coming out this month, is Glass satisfied that his opera stands perfectly well as an opera in its own right without the visual experience? He has, for instance, introduced an overture on the new CD which isn’t in the film. ‘Okay, I don’t have the images for the disc, but it has a certain resolution. I’ve tried to create a sound universe entire in itself.’

Surprisingly, he is not intending to make a video of the complete film-opera. Given that Glass has created a new medium, or at least successfully combined two existing ones, it is just as surprising that he doesn’t want to develop it for new works. ‘Because this worked out so well I am reluctant to do exactly the same thing again, but I would like to use this as a departure point for other cinematic projects. I don’t ever keep the same style because I am always looking for new soundworlds.’ This constant moving on to new pastures is something he keeps repeating and he is quick to condemn those critics who’ve described his works as anachronistic. ‘I abandoned my minimalism 30 years ago. It’s just convenient and lazy for people to say I still work in this area.’

But vocal music very much dominates his plans and while he strives to find new ‘soundworlds’ it is interesting that his assurance in writing for the voice is founded not in the new, but in the tried and tested formulas of Handel. ‘It’s from Handel, more than any other composer, that I’ve learned about the voice and how to exercise it – taking it from its highest to its middle to its low registers, not leaving it in one part for too long. A singer of my recent work can now count on using the whole range of the voice in the course of an evening, which is less tiring, more beautiful and ultimately more expressive.’

For the future we can look forward to the final instalment in his Cocteau trilogy – an opera with dance, as opposed to film – Les enfants terribles. And he is currently working on a new opera with a Doris Lessing libretto and – excitingly – an adaptation of Chaucer’s bawdy Canterbury Tales. The new soundworld inspired by this one should be interesting!

Classic CD magazine, 1995


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