From the beginning, things were about looking up for Philip Glass.
His landmark first opera, Einstein on the Beach, closes with a description of lovers holding hands in the moonlight, the conclusion of a passage that includes the words, “The day with its cares and perplexities is ended and the night is now upon us. The night should be a time of peace and tranquility, a time to relax and be calm.” His second opera, Satyagraha, about Gandhi’s early years, also ends with a vision of transcendent night. Akhnaten, Mr. Glass’ third opera and the conclusion of the “portrait trilogy” begun with Einstein and Satyagraha, revolves around a hymn to the sun as it explores its title character’s experiments in monotheism.
The sky and astronomy have gone from symbol to subject in two of Mr. Glass’ most recent operas, based, like much of his operatic output, on two important (and male) historical figures: Galileo Galilei, which premiered in Chicago in 2002, and now Kepler, which had its American premiere in a concert performance at BAM last Wednesday, conducted by the great Dennis Russell Davies.
The two operas are very different works. Galileo’s 10 scenes, which run in reverse chronological order, track closely to events in the scientist’s life—his final blindness, his trial by the Inquisition, the release of one of his treatises. There’s a strong emotional current, too, in the depiction of Galileo’s relationship with his beloved daughter, a nun who died at the age of 33.
Kepler has more in common with the more extreme abstraction of Einstein on the Beach. Completely absent from the opera are even passing mentions of any of the events that might have seemed invaluable to an operatic treatment of Kepler’s life: two early, life-changing sightings, of a comet in 1577 and an eclipse of the moon three years later; either of his two marriages; his friendship with the eccentric astronomer—and perfect operatic character—Tycho Brahe; his mother’s trial for witchcraft; and his revolutionary work in the field of science fiction (intelligent giant lizards on the moon!).
Instead, there are two acts, each containing three loosely defined scenes. The scenes aren’t “dramatic,” per se; instead, enigmatic excerpts from Kepler’s writings, both scientific and personal, are sung by combinations of a chorus; a baritone (costumed ickily in an Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat knockoff in patchwork leather) playing Kepler; and six singers who perform both solo and together (and who may or may not represent facets of Kepler’s thought processes). These “scenes” are interspersed with settings of poems by Andreas Gryphius, the 17th-century German poet and dramatist whose major subject was the suffering caused by the Thirty Years War.
When the Met unveiled its dazzlingly inventive production of Satyagraha in the spring of 2008, The Times complained that “Mr. Glass … was not interested in fashioning a cogent narrative.” Of course, Mr. Glass was, as Daniel Mendelsohn demonstrated in The New York Review of Books, very interested in fashioning a cogent narrative; it just wasn’t a simple or chronological one. Similarly, the Times review of Kepler holds it up next to Galileo and sniffs, “Galileo, at least, had its protagonist’s persecution by the church to deal with, and Mr. Glass wisely included an Inquisition scene.” It’s the same complaint that has dogged Mr. Glass for over 30 years: too dry, not enough happens, where’s the Inquisition scene.
Yet if you go into Kepler not expecting, say, Tosca, the work’s structure has its own beauties. The three scenes in the first act elegantly present Kepler’s principles: the importance of his faith, his reliance on the scientific method, his belief that the search for knowledge and life itself are inextricably linked. The second act’s three scenes show the way those principles actually behave in the real world: His faith also manifests itself as a talent for astrology (which he did not confuse with his scientific work); he used his cutting-edge scientific method to discover that the planets move in elliptical rather than circular orbits; and his fixation on knowledge led to his rededication to his work during the destruction caused by the Thirty Years War.
The real irreconcilability in the piece isn’t between religion and science, as might be expected, but between beauty (both scientific and religious) and war. It doesn’t seem accurate that Kepler is designed to repeat Galileo’s theme—as The Times puts it, “to examine again the relationship between science and religion” and depict Kepler’s “almost continuous struggle to show that science and religion are separate, noncompeting realms, and that his discoveries are not a disavowal of God.”
Galileo’s confrontation with the church was one of the great battles in the history of both science and religion. Yet Kepler does not seem to have had a parallel experience of science-related religious angst or struggle. He accepted as a given that religion and science coexist, and enhance each other, and the opera follows his lead.
Perhaps the most radical thing about Kepler is its presentation—in front of a young, mostly secular and liberal audience in Brooklyn—of a hero who is both genuinely scientific and genuinely religious. In our culture, today’s great scientists are imagined to be wholly secular, even atheistic, which is simply not the case. The chorus sings, “By Him, through Him, within Him is everything,” and that “everything” includes Kepler’s scientific discoveries as well as his prayers.
And there’s no sense that Mr. Glass has a problem with this or thinks that we in the 21st century have some better handle on the truth of the matter. There’s something refreshing about the composer’s willingness to depict a belief in God as meaningful—and not a belief that’s potentially hip like Taoism or Buddhism, but good, old-fashioned Lutheranism. Something that doesn’t get said about Mr. Glass enough, but that may in the end be one of the real distinctions between him and other composers popular with a contemporary, liberal audience, is that he always gives religious belief its due, without condescension. It’s one of the many pleasures of his surprisingly moving new opera, which will hopefully return to New York soon, perhaps alongside Galileo.