Akhnaten is an opera based on the life and religious convictions of the pharaoh Akhenaten (a.k.a. Amenhotep IV), written by the foremost exponent of minimalist music, Philip Glass, and first performed in 1984 by the Stuttgart Opera.
Editorial note: the composer uses the spelling Akhnaten, while the more conventional variant is Akhenaten. Given the nature of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the absence of a vowel is not terribly important. In this article the first version refers to the opera and the second to the pharaoh.
According to the composer, this work is the culmination of his two other biographical operas, Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha (about Mohandas Gandhi). These three -- Akhenaten, Einstein and Gandhi __ were all driven by an inner vision which altered the age in which they lived, particularly Akhenaten in religion, Einstein in science and Gandhi in politics.
The music, contrary to the critics of the minimalist school of music, is powerful, emotional and extremely moving. The tragedy of Akhenaten's life and times is always present, if only in the background and every musical phrase is imbued with an aura of antiquity.
The text, taken from original sources, is given in the original languages, linked together with the commentary of a narrator in a modern language, such as English or German. Egyptian texts of the period are taken from a poem of Akhenaten, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and extracts of decrees and letters from the Amarna period. Other portions are in Akkadian and Biblical Hebrew.
The opera is divided into three acts:
Act I: Year 1 of Akhnaten's Reign in Thebes
- Scene 1: Funeral of Akhenaten's father Amenhotep III
- Scene 2: The Coronation of Akhnaten
- Scene 3: The Window of Appearances
Act II: Years 5 to 15 in Thebes
- Scene 1: The Temple
- Scene 2: Akhnaten and his beloved wife Nefertiti
- Scene 3: The City - Dance (the city's name is Akhetaten ( = the horizon of the Aten))
- Scene 4: Hymn (including Psalm 104 in Hebrew offstage)
Act III: Year 17 and the Present
- Scene 1: The Family
- Scene 2: The Attack and Fall of the City
- Scene 3: The Ruins
- Scene 4: Epilogue
The work is an overwhelming piece of opera-craft that transports the receptive listener to ancient Egypt. It can fill him/her with a Zeitgeist which will mourn the passing of the world's first monotheist.