Philip Glass goes to the Circus in New Opera
by John Diliberto 5/29/2021
I always wondered what Philip Glass would sound like with a Philadelphia Mummers band. Circus Days and Nights, livestreamed from the Malmo Opera, comes close with a circus orchestra and accordion. Glass taps some of his early magic with this dazzling new opera set in a circus company, complete with everything but animals. Performed by the Malmo Opera with Cirkus Cirkör in Sweden, a ringmaster leads acrobats, trapeze artists, a bearded lady, jugglers, clowns and every archetypal circus trope you remember, except, like Cirque du Soleil, the animals. Although they do have a lion trainer, without the lion.
The opera is based around the poems of Robert Lax who traveled with a circus. Poems from his books Circus of the Sun and Mogador’s Book, are transformed by Glass’s longtime librettist David Henry Hwang into a day in the life of the circus, from building the tent and stages, to performing, to tearing it all down. It serves as a metaphor for the cycles of life, and uses a creation myth as a metaphor, the rise of the tent being the formation of earth, and the enclosed circus tent a church. But there are also lessons of discipline, trust, balance and finally transcendence in art and life. The play imagines Robert Lax experiencing the opera as a child, a young man and an older man, the latter two portrayed respectively, and on stage – simultaneously – by soprano Elin Rombo and tenor Jakob Högström. Rombo also gets to sing while flying through the air and Högström does a rope trick.
For an opera about the cycle of life, Philip Glass is the perfect composer. There’s nothing so new from him musically. Playing behind the layered circus choreography directed by Tilde Björfors, director of Cirkus Cirkör, familiar Glass motifs appear throughout his cyclical melodies. But cast with this unusual semi-circus orchestration, where accordion takes most of the lead melodies, these motifs find intoxicating new life.
Dressed in circus regalia, a relatively small onstage ensemble of strings, brass, winds, percussion and accordion takes Glass’s music and drives it behind wild circus performances including burning dresses, smoking hats, jugglers with tuned devil sticks, and acrobats doing hieroglyphic splits. Opera singers and musicians sometimes spin through the air on a trapeze or ropes. A tuba is balanced on an acrobat’s nose – no mean feat and one you won’t see in a marching band or symphony orchestra.
Operas like these are a long time in the works, so other than playing it to a small audience and live-streaming, there’s nothing related to the pandemic, but it seems like the perfect celebratory fête to come out of these COVID-19 times. Circus Days and Nights is all just so exhilarating. In-person, performed for an all-too-small, socially-distanced audience, it must have been a sensation overload of delirious dimensions.