An introduction to Akhnaten

Here’s everything you need to know about ENO’s production of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten.

It’s the final opera in Glass’s Portrait Trilogy

Depicting the story of the eponymous ancient Egyptian pharaoh, Akhnaten is one of composer Philip Glass’s three ‘portrait’ operas. The operas in the trilogy are all based around different themes:

  • Akhnaten (1983) has a focus on religion
  • Satyagraha (1980) tackles politics
  • Einstein on the Beach (1976), science.

The mesmerising opera uses texts from ancient scripts such as The book of the Dead to drive the story forward. Like Satyagraha (sung in Sanskrit), Akhnaten makes use of obscure language; in this case Hebrew, Egyptian and Akkadian.

Akhnaten was a real Egyptian pharaoh

The pharaoh Akhenaten (spelt differently than the opera’s title character) is known for abandoning traditional Egyptian polytheism; the belief of numerous deities. The radical pharaoh wanted his people to worship just one god – the sun (the Aten). In a bid to enforce his new way of thinking, Akhenaten closed the temples to the old gods, wiped their names from monuments and built a new Egyptian capital, Akhetaten. Still not familiar with Akhenaten’s story? You may have heard of his son Tutankhamun and wife Nefertiti.

Glass was inspired to write the opera after reading books by Freud and Velikovsky

The inspiration for writing Akhnaten came from his reading of Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism and Immanuel Velikovsky’s Oedipus and Akhnaton. Velikovsky’s controversial book (the work that inspired Glass the most) explores the parallels between the Greek Oedipus, legendary king of Thebes, and the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten.

It’s not like any opera you’ve seen before

The immersive opera doesn’t have a conventional narrative or libretto. Instead, the story of Akhnaten is told through a series of tableaux. Rhythms of Glass’s meditative score are visualised with stylised movement and choreographed juggling. Akhnaten loosely follows the real story of the emperor’s rise to power, the erecting of his new city and the fall of his dynasty.

Read the full synopsis >>

ENO gave the opera its UK premiere in 1985

A year after its world premiere at the Stuttgart theatre, ENO brought Akhnaten to the London Coliseum for its UK premiere. This year, director Phelim McDermott’s Olivier award-winning production returns to the London Coliseum for its first revival.

Below: Sally Burgess as Nefertiti, Christopher Robson as Akhnaten, 1985 (c) Clive Barda