“Akhnaten” is a modern Opera composed by Philip Glass. It is being performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City now through December 7. The director is Phelim McDermott of Manchester, England. He directed many innovative award-winning operas and plays and founded the theater company, “Improbable.” “Akhnaten” is his seventh opera and it won the 2017 Olivier award for Best New Opera Production.
In order to make the setting (the ancient Egyptian world) come alive in a dynamic and visual way, he chose the art of juggling as the medium to best compliment the music and singing. He approached Sean Gandini who told him that the ancient Egyptians were themselves jugglers and showed him the pictures to prove it (from the Beni Hasan cemetery complex). They went to work to bring it to fruition.
Gandini, who hails from Havana, had already choreographed many juggling routines to classical music including pieces by Vivaldi and Steve Reich. He created the Gandini Juggling Project in 1991 with his wife, Kati Ylä-Hokkala, who also appears in Akhnaten. They have performed original routines at the Royal Opera House in London, and on stage in over 50 countries.
Akhnaten is a three act Opera which runs three and a half hours (including intermissions). The costumes, music, singing, and scenery are all sublime.
There is juggling in each act. The opera tells the story of the Pharaoh Akhnaten, who was the King of Egypt just prior to King Tut (Tutankhamun-1630BCE, Akhnaten’s son).
In the first act, the team of twelve jugglers (referred to in the playbill as the “Skills Ensemble”) juggle three balls each to the music. They begin with a cascade and gradually do more and more complicated patterns and in a variety of positions, such as lying down on the floor, sitting using over-head tosses, or standing while throwing claw, cross hands, machine, and high throws.
It is all perfectly synchronized to the music and to each other, not just in time but in height and angle. It harmonizes with the music and never up-stages the other performers. They continue with all ten doing an extended five ball cascade, an astonishing sight.
The second act has the most juggling in it and the most difficult tricks. And all toss juggling, no poi or diabolo.
They begin by holding three radical fish clubs in the shape of a bow and arrow. They shoot the “arrow” and team off for an extended club passing sequence. Michael Karas and Brian Koenig pass in a box pattern opposite Kelsey Strauch and Liza van Brakel. Iñaki Fernández Sastre passes in a line with Doreen Grossmann, Christian Kloc, Kim Huynh, and Shane Miclon. Gandini passes back-to-back with Kati Ylä-Hokkala.
They switch positions and vary the speed and height of the throws.
The star singer, Anthony Roth Costanzo, says, “I’m at the center of all that, moving in slow motion. But you (the audience) are not in any way distracted because they become this movement-texture.”
In the third act they juggle three and five balls. They also pass large beach balls in numerous patterns. The balls are all white and parallel the image of the sun on the backdrop, a hint to Akhnaten’s dedication to the sun god. In fact, Akhnaten was himself something of a radical fish, disposing of the Egyptian system of polytheistic worship.
This shocking change threatened the incumbent priests and clergy and cost him his life. Soon after, he was forcibly disposed, and all his images and monuments were razed and erased. There is actually very little left of any artifacts from his 17-year-reign.
The director, McDermott says the idea of employing juggling first came to him while he was in a flotation tank. The idea of repetitive patterns in music to hear, and repetitive patterns in juggling to see, was exactly what he was looking for, and Gandini made the dream a reality.
“You hit this moment,” McDermott says, “where they (the audience) don’t quite know what they saw, and think, ‘Did I imagine that?'”
And what about the audience? They applauded long and hard when the Gandini’s made their curtain-call. Sophia Cerovsek, long-time Manhattan resident and avid opera goer had this to say, “I loved the jugglers. I was in awe of how they could juggle non-stop without mishaps. I have huge respect for a profession I knew nothing about!”
Richard Diener, music scholar and historian, said, “I had a preconceived idea that the juggling might be a distraction to the show. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was quite wrong. It enhanced it. It added to the continuity of the story from beginning to end. The juggling created an equilibrium between the observers and the performers. It was an integral part of the production and in the context of the theme of monotheism and sun-worship it resulted in a cosmic connection between the audience, the singers and jugglers. I had no idea this was possible and have come to appreciate the jugglers’ skills.”