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Appomatox, An Opera by Philip Glass

Philip Glass

One of the great things about going to a premiere of a new opera by a living composer is that you have a direct connection to the life and times of the work. Walking into theater last night, I noticed that the guy in front of me was Philip Glass. He looked a little nervous. Frankly I don’t know how he could sit in the audience and just watch.

While I wouldn’t call “Appomatox” a masterpiece, I would say it’s a “must see.” It’s a very good and thought provoking piece. Robert Woodruff makes his opera directing debut and really delivers. And the set design has tremendous scale with visual and emotional impact.

Glass, Christopher Hampton and David Gockley are to be congratulated for their fearlessness in selecting a theme as big as the Civil War. It’s only through big risk that there is the potential for big rewards. It’s a big story that delivers on many levels. This county’s civil war left 600,000 dead, and that burden weighed down the souls of Lincoln, Grant and Lee. In a war where so many men die, it’s left to the women to tell the story and express the emotions of the nation.

Grant and Lee negotiated the surrender of the southern army and the basis for reconciliation. The opera goes on to tell the ways in which reconcilation failed. The negotiation was civilized and concluded in great hope. But we are only a nation of people—flawed, brilliant and inconsistent.

The orchestra was conducted by Dennis Russell Davies in his first engagement with SF Opera. A long time ago, Davies was the music director of the Cabrillo Music Festival in Santa Cruz. He’s conducted many premieres by Glass, and showed a real command of the music. If you’ve listened to a lot of Glass, you’ll hear many familiar themes. If you like Glass, you’ll like Appomatax. It probably requires several hearings for its full depth to come through.

All opera company directors are looking to broaden their audiences. They need to bring younger people in and win new converts. The house was packed and diverse. At the intermission, there was a real buzz. The opera provoked conversation and dialogue. I like seeing new work about american themes and history. There’s a lot of richness here that’s untapped.

Published in art culture music opera performance theater