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Interview with Philip Glass

ResMusica : In 1976, Einstein on the Beach, and in 2013, The Lost. Mr. Glass, when composing your first opera, did you know that twenty-four others would follow?

: (Laughs.) No. No, no . . . And there soon will be another one! In 2013, The Lost (Spur der Verrirten) was premiered, but so was The Perfect American. I composed those two operas at the same time. (Laughs.) One was supposed to be premiered in January 2013, the other in April 2013, and then it changed and had to be the other way around. So I had to stop working on one and start the other, and finish both together!

RM: The French critics see you today as “a worthy successor of Händel and Verdi.” What do you think of that statement?

PG: I’m sorry? Händel! Verdi! (Laughs.) Oh, my. But I am not over yet! As I was saying, I am now focused on another opera. The twenty-fifth now. . . Maybe the twenty-sixth. I am writing Kafka’s The Trial for the Welsh Music Theater Company. This opera will be premiered this October in Cardiff. I am composing it right now. So now I am working on Kafka. It is very interesting. I am really immersed in this work. I am always very committed to the libretto that I set to music. I should have finished it by the end of March. Maybe April. The rehearsals start in July. From July to October, there will be a full four months of rehearsals. The theater already has the first scene. Now I can see where we are going. Every other week, they receive a new part. They will be able to perform it in time. What I mean is, everything is going well. . . .

RM: Only a handful of composers enjoy fame in their lifetime. Success tends to be either in the reviews or among the crowds. Seldom both. Stefan Zweig had the same privilege as you, but, even though he was pleased by it at first, he ended up thinking of fame as very difficult to live with. Do you feel the same way?

PG: Oh, that’s interesting. No, to me, fame is not a burden. The problem is that I never have enough time to write all the music I have in mind! (Laughs.) Music will never cease to exist, but I will. Isn’t it true? The music will never stop, but I will stop. What can I do against that? It is an issue.

RM: Stefan Zweig also said that he preferred the process of creation over the created piece itself. Is it the same for you?

PG: Yes, that is true. I feel the same way. Exactly. I went to Paris for the reprise of Einstein on the Beach two weeks ago. And . . . I did not find it that interesting. The music interested me, but not all the lyrics in Einstein’s music. (Laughs.) The work is good. I understood that it had a certain weight. But . . . it is not who I am anymore.

RM: Are the humanism and melancholy, typical of your operas, a reflection of our times?

PG: Kepler, who was the subject of one my operas, was a very interesting figure. Kepler’s times—the sixteenth century—this remote period has a lot in common with today’s. Back then, there was the Counter-Reformation, the Thirty Years’ War, the Catholics against the Protestants . . . Kepler said the that blood was flowing down the streets. He was watching the world around him. It was horrible! He said “The only thing that we can do is to pursue our studies and melt into eternity.” That’s a very contemporary way to see things. He could wander around the world right now and see the same thing. Indeed, it is a melancholy analysis, but that was the world Kepler lived in, and it is also the world we live in. If you read the modern philosophers—we should be a little less melancholic—the modern philosophers say that everything changes all the time, that nothing is truly real, that everything is a little bit unreal. This is the modern way of life. Isn’t it true? Do you understand? That is horrible! Don’t you agree?

RM: French critics’ opinions regarding your work were divided. For a long time it even was very difficult in France to have a serious conversation about you. Do you think that this attitude is due to the structuralist way of thought, which is hardwired in our country?

PG: You will understand, it was difficult for them, not for me. I did not have any issue with being who I was. I came to France a few times, to perform my work, not as often as I would have liked. But I finished my studies in France. I have received a French musical training. Why would no one invite me?

RM: If we have a closer look to the evolution of the French critics regarding your work, we can see that after almost forty years, they gradually seem to surrender. The recent success of Einstein on the Beach in Paris is a sign of that.

PG: No, they didn’t surrender: they are dead. It is not the same. I am sorry, but it is not the same. My enemies did not change their mind: they are dead! And younger people have arrived, that do not share the same point of view. That is what really happened. They did not change their minds: they died!

RM: The vocal line of La Belle et la Bête, which is very lyrical, is reminiscent of Dialogues of the Carmelites, Francis Poulenc’s masterpiece. Do you agree with this comparison?

PG: I don’t know. But Poulenc is an excellent composer. You have to understand that, since I have a French training, it has to show up. My master, Nadia Boulanger, had Fauré for a master. She studied with Fauré! Fauré! We are talking about the real French lineage here. The French school. There is a French school. It comes from Berlioz. There is nothing better than Berlioz! But it was also very difficult for him in France, wasn’t it?

RM: Which of your operas are you the most proud of?

PG: It think Satyagraha. And I am going to tell you why: because it still has a daily impact on the world. It was remounted recently in New York and London, and the critics have been laudatory.

RM: You have brought back together a lot of our contemporaries with the operatic art of the twentieth century. For all members of the audience, it is indeed always a powerful experience to be at one of your operas, whatever their origins, their knowledge of music. . . .

PG: Yes, but you know, Satyagraha, for instance, conveys ideas on how to change the way society evolves, in a nonviolent way. It is a fundamental idea, the most important of all. Galileo Galilei and Akhnaten also convey important ideas, but Satyagraha goes even further, to the heart of the issue: the issue of social change. Look at today’s Syria. This country is destroying itself. Syria is killing itself, isn’t it true? The country is against itself. And that’s not only happening in Syria. You can see that in other places. Inside a country, but also between countries. As if there were a taste for violence. That is a global joy, isn’t it? This taste for violence is unbelievable! You could even say it’s a true appetite for violence. You can see it everywhere. I am afraid for my four children. How can we prepare our children for the everyday world?

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