Feminism by any other name

March 17, 2013

I recently watched the excellent PBS documentary Makers on second-wave feminism and the rise of the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. It was a refresher of a women’s studies class I took at IU in the early ’90s, but with some somewhat controversial updates from the 1980s and beyond.

I was raised as a conservative Catholic, but with a rebel streak. After a five-year-old cousin died when I was 14 or 15, I took comfort in my relationship with the Virgin Mary. (She was also who I turned to when I had cramps—what would Jesus know about cramps?) I strove to be what was considered to be the model woman in the Church: meek, mild, submissive to God’s will, and every other thing I was never going to be.

I was virulently anti-abortion, having no clue what challenges a pregnant woman faces. I saw abortion as murder, plain and simple, and rejected it even in cases of rape, incest, or the life of the mother. If you got pregnant and didn’t want the child, you carried it to term and gave it up for adoption. Case closed. I gave no thought to the idea of women’s being forced by the state to carry fetuses to term, nor did I consider the agony women would go through carrying a rapist’s or worse, a relative’s child. Everything was simple.

On the other hand, when the U.S. Catholic bishops published an encyclical against nuclear war, I became passionately anti-nuke. Through my relationships with leftist friends, I became familiar with Women and Children First in Chicago, read liberal manifestos, and wrote letters to Congressmen (yes, they were all men) to protest the nuclear arms race. I came to political consciousness during the Carter/Reagan race and was convinced Reagan was going to press the button. I had many nightmares about nuclear war and once I saw the Church was against it, I wholeheartedly supported that view.

When I was 17 or 18 I read a pamphlet at church published by a society dedicated to one of the Mary cults—probably Fatima. It talked about how Mary told the children that women should dress modestly, with sleeves no shorter than 3/4 length. It would be years before it would occur to me how strange it was that Mary was so specific about fashion advice, but at the time I just felt a terrible sinking feeling. I was athletic in high school as well as a theatre geek and regularly wore short-sleeved shirts. It was the ’80s and mini-skirts were in. I was so sad to realize I would never be good enough. I would never be able to be fully a women in the eyes of the Church. It was devastating.

I burbled along my merry way, combining leftist and anarchist beliefs (anti-apartheid, anti-CIA) with this harsh conservative/libertarian view that all things could be reduced to black and white and there was one right way and one wrong way and I knew what was what, amen. If black people were discriminated against, they should sue. If women were denied promotion in the workplace, they should sue or leave. Simple. Black and white.

In the late ’80s I worked at McDonald’s and met one of the most pivotal people in my life: Tammy Taysom. She was a feminist Mormon, two things I’d not come into deep contact with before. And two things I had a hard time reconciling in one being. She was in favor of polygamy, not for anything to do with men, but to get rid of men. She wanted a man to have babies with, but then she thought the man should go away or even die (of natural causes) so she could hang out with his other wives and they could all raise the children together. She saw this as a liberating, positive, supportive environment for women, free from the oppressive influence of men. She blew my mind.

Tammy and I would have raging philosophical arguments over the grills in the back of the restaurant, slinging words as fast as burgers. At one point one of the managers turned to look at me and asked, “What are you doing here?” I was a little taken aback but told him the truth: “All I have is a high school education.” He shook his head. “No. What are you doing here?” I knew he meant that, with my intellect and erudition, I should be out in the world someplace. But I just repeated with more emphasis, “All I have is a high school education.” I had tried to find other jobs, but no one wanted me.

Tammy held her own in our arguments, which was impressive. I learned from my father at an early age how to talk circles around someone even when I didn’t know what I was talking about. I knew how to use language to confuse logic. But she cut right to the chase and challenged my deeply held beliefs. And finally it came down to it: she dared me to take a women’s studies class. And she would take it with me. Since I was finally going back to school that fall, I took her dare, smug in my belief that I would prove her arguments wrong.

For the first few weeks, I hard-headedly held my own. For every example they presented, I had a pat answer: women should put up or shut up. What I hadn’t realized was how much contempt I had for women. I hated being a woman.

When I was about four or five I came to that crossroads that all children come to, when they decide who they’re going to be. In my case, I had a mother and a father to choose from. My dad was the oppressor. My mom was the victim. For me, it was a no-brainer. I chose to be my dad, so I could be free to do whatever I wanted. Even then, I was intrigued by power.

What I didn’t realized at the time (of course, my brain had barely developed by then) was that being powerful as a man meant being contemptuous of women. I spent many, many years of my life trying to prove that I was good enough to be an honorary man, but the bottom line was that I was a prisoner of my biology. I would always be betrayed by my femaleness. Like on that day reading about Fatima, I realized I would never make the cut. And I hated myself for it.

Back to the women’s studies class! What cut through all my philosophical schizophrenia was the section on rape. I remember lying on the couch in my apartment, highlighting passages in a variety of texts. The evidence just piled on and piled on. Three out of four women sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. Rape as violence, not as sex. The most dangerous place for a woman to be was in the home of someone she loved.

I put down the books and thought about my own life. I realized that almost every woman I knew, including myself, had been sexually abused at some point in her life. I began to cry, a deep, wounded cry, whispering, “What did we do? What did we do?” What could women have possibly done to deserve this epidemic of sexual violence? How could I possibly explain it away case by case when it was so widespread? The answer was right there: it wasn’t a case by case issue—it was a society-wide threat. It was rooted in a hatred and fear of women that was so pervasive that virtually no woman was safe.

The walls came tumbling down. My eyes were open to systemic problems of race, class, and gender. I could see patterns that I was blind to before. And since I was now a Pagan instead of a Catholic, it all fit into a deep, seamless stream of morality. I knew where I stood and why I stood there. And I knew that by rising up and taking that stand, I was making a difference. Goddess bless Tammy Taysom.

Once I was on the train, there was no getting off. I read everything I could find on oppressive systems, whether against people or the environment. I worked at a feminist magazine. I attended workshops and festivals. I joined mass protests in DC and NYC. And I read My Mother, Myself, the first time I’d ever bothered to examine my relationship with my mother rather than my father. I saw my contempt for her and for all women, and especially for myself, and I got rid of it. I embraced myself as a woman and even began to be thankful for it. I grew into the belief I still hold today: it’s easier to be a whole human being in this society if you are a woman. Sexism = bondage not just for women, but for men. Since women are marginalized, they can get away with drumming circles and consciousness raising and generally doing whatever under-the-radar things they want to do because they are, after all, just women. But men are held to a more rigid standard. Women can wear men’s clothes, for instance, but men can’t wear women’s. If they embrace their feelings, they are pounced on (remember Robert Bly?).

The situation is much more complex than that, and has changed since the Clinton presidency when he would cry at the drop of a hat, but there are still some threads of truth there. In some traditional societies, when women would menstruate, they’d be sent to moon lodges or other dark spaces in order not to “contaminate” the men with their mysterious and powerful (“dirty”) menstrual blood. But Tammy and I laughed at the idea and said, “Yeah, yeah, we’re unclean, we’re unclean, now who’s bringing the chocolate?” If women were really held in such low esteem, it’s possible they looked forward to getting away from stupid men and associating with equals in moon lodges.

Recently I attended a screening of Things We Don’t Talk About: Women’s Stories from the Red Tent. It’s a movement inspired by the book The Red Tent, a novel which posited how women came together during their menstrual cycles. In the film, women join in circles small and large to tell their stories. Some are funny, most are sad, but all lead the women to feeling more empowered. They rise up and say, “I am beautiful, I am loved, and I deserve to be here.”

That’s all well and good, but why in the world are we still saying this 40 years after the women’s liberation movement began? (We’ve circled round to Makers, folks.) In the ’70s, women came together in consciousness raising groups and found to their surprise that others had similar experiences. And then they changed their lives. They didn’t just keep it for other women. They took it home and renegotiated their marriages. Or they left their marriages. They joined the movement and marched in the streets, carried signs, volunteered for causes, worked at feminist magazines, and fought for the Equal Rights Amendment. The personal was political. They changed everything, from the bedroom to the boardroom.

According to Makers, everything shifted when the women’s movement openly embraced lesbians and when Phyllis Schlafly came on the scene. Schlafly mobilized conservative women against liberals and militants. And the country swung with her, electing our chief adult child of an alcoholic, Ronald Reagan.

In Makers, they cite a major change in the women’s movement at this time with the rise of Madonna. In the view of the producers, Madonna embodied the new post-feminist woman, who was “sexually confident.” There were no close-ups of her famous “Boy Toy” belt buckle, though, which seems to put the lie to that point of view.

Madonna is an interesting figure because she used sexism to make a point. I remember watching a video of her in an art criticism class. She was walking down a runway, wearing a short coat or vest. When she got to the end of the runway, she opened her coat to reveal her naked breasts. A man in the audience actually leapt like a crazy man and was practically frothing at the mouth in glee. Who had the power in that situation?

If you’ve ever seen Madonna, you’d be hard-pressed to say that she’s been exploited, but I think it’s easier to see the trajectory with women entertainers who’ve come after her. Sexism is still so ingrained in our culture that women embrace their objectification. Are they really “sexually confident”? Or are they just doing what male producers say is necessary to get ahead? Considering the lack of analysis that goes into women’s roles these days, I say it’s the latter.

As I write this, there’s a furor over the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. She is the daughter of privilege and not coincidentally a mover and shaker in Silicon Valley. Her book takes on the tedious question of whether women can have it all. Part of her message is that women don’t “lean in”—they choose not to lead. Aside from the fact that her message doesn’t relate to the experiences of poor and working class women, it seems to ignore the fact that women are socialized not to lead. STILL. It starts in grade school and continues throughout our lives.

I am so sick of the question, “Can women have it all?” Why doesn’t anyone ever ask, “Can men have it all?” The assumption is that men do have everything they need. If that means they have the best jobs and make the most money, I think that’s a pretty piss-poor definition of “all.” For women, of course, it means, “Can women have family and a career?” The answer is yes, obviously, yes, but only if we dramatically alter society.

In my view, it takes at least five adults to raise a child. In tribal societies, this is no problem. But in a capitalist society that encourages “nuclear” as the definition of “family” so that “human capital” can be easily moved to wherever the jobs are, we’re screwed. Add to that that men still aren’t pulling their weight when it comes to family and household chores, and you’ve got women as second-class citizens. STILL. So rather than blame women for still not doing enough, let’s take a big-picture view and ask what institutional blocks are in place that hold women back and which give men privileges.

Remember the Red Tent film? Earlier in this rant? What struck me was how we still have this dynamic of women coming together and finding some sort of power—and yet how it completely lacks a political component. Nowhere was sexism mentioned. Everything was seen in personal terms. Case by case. They missed the whole component of how societal pressures keep women from demanding complete power (here I mean power-from-within and power-with, not power-over (see Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance)). And they never examined what they could do once they stood up and declared themselves beautiful. Beautiful? Really? That’s it? Now, having gone through the process myself, I know that’s a key milestone to an experience as a woman, but is that really all we’re going for? Accepting ourselves for how we look? What about what we want?

It blows my MIND that, 40 years after the women’s liberation movement began, women are still coming to this process as newbies. And they will continue to do so as long as they remain ignorant of sexism as a systemic problem.

This week the Newshour reported on sexual assaults in the military. Of nearly 4,000 reported cases of assault last year, only 191 resulted in convictions. 191! And since under-reporting is so common, they estimate that the incidents of assault are actually closer to 19,000. This is not a case of women wearing dresses that are too short or being drunk or saying no when they mean yes or any of the zillions of other victim-blaming reasons given to make sure we treat each case as separate and unique. This is a violent culture. The problem is systemic. It cannot be fixed by one woman suing the military. It will take a top-to-bottom, bottom-to-top sea change in attitudes that see women as “less than.”

I remember in the 1990s when I was working with the leaders of all the main national Pagan groups in the U.S. to come up with a definition of “Paganism” that we could submit to dictionaries. Now, Paganism is the most inclusively diverse movement I know of. Most Pagans revere the Goddess over the God, and sometimes even to the exclusion of the God. It is all about women’s empowerment and about men being comfortable as whole human beings. It is feminist.

But when it came time to write that dictionary definition, I wasn’t allowed to use the word “feminist.” It was considered too controversial, too militant. Even though it was true. The final definition was “Collection of diverse contemporary religions rooted in indigenous traditions or deriving inspiration therefrom, characterized by a belief in the interconnection of all life, personal autonomy, and immanent divinities. Often nature-centered and supportive of gender equity.” Did you catch that? “Supportive of gender equity.” How lame. How tame. It’s like all those people who use the word “Wicca” instead of “Witchcraft.” “Wicca” isn’t a real word. It has no history, no meaning. That makes it safe to use in non-Pagan settings, but really, don’t we have the courage to move beyond that?

Where was I? Oh, right, in the middle of being frustrated.

If they do start a Red Tent in Brown County, I will go. I will check it out and be supportive of the women there and then I will open my mouth and probably be kicked out. Something really powerful happened to and for women in the 1970s and we have lost ground since then in many ways. Gloria Steinem said that they realized in the ’70s it would take over 100 years to change all the individual laws of discrimination against women, so it made more sense to push for the ERA and be done with it. And we came so close. But now we’re back to fighting institutionalized sexism one law at a time (just last week a state passed a law banning abortions after 6 weeks—many women don’t even know they’re pregnant at 6 weeks!).

Maybe we’ll just have to keep slogging through, one women’s circle at a time, one provocative book at a time. But until we start raising girls and boys differently, we’re not going to get very far. I do want to acknowledge the changes that have been made—I mean, look at me, I’m a textbook case of the privilege of being a liberated woman. I just want a holistic push for a societal transformation where all humans, regardless of gender, class, ethnicity, religion, orientation, you name it, are on an equal playing feel. I want us to be fully human, exploring all the colors of our selves and being safe to do so. I want us all to be strong and tender and bloody-minded and empathetic. I want change. I want liberation. I want the world.

Curglaff! And other English flotsam

March 14, 2013

As a history buff and lover of language, I am fascinated by the way words change over time. Like Shakespeare’s “glister.” All that glisters is not gold. Whatever happened to that?

My friend LC came across this post of moribund terms and all his Facebook friends agree we need to resurrect them.

For one thing, he is totally a spermologer. I am so grateful finally to have a word which describes him. And I? My life is ruled by curglaff. This is “the shock felt in bathing when one first plunges into the cold water — John Jamieson’s Etymological Scottish Dictionary, 1808.” Totally me. In fact, we just talked about it in therapy this week. We’re trying to get me to exercise more to ward off depression. I can’t be bothered. Except that it warms me up.

I am one of those perpetually cold people who likes to place her icy “hands of death” on the back of your neck to freak you out. I hate getting into the shower on Sunday mornings because I’m always cold from lounging in bed after reading the paper. I run screaming into the shower like a little girl. A rather foul-mouthed little girl.

So when I work out, I actually sweat. Imagine! It’s an unusual state for me. And when it comes time for a shower, curglaff is minimized. This is much to be admired.

Not my most exciting post ever, but I wanted to preserve this link for future fun. Enjoy!

“Follower” by Seamus Heaney

March 6, 2013

Among other things, I am reading Ireland in Poetry, edited by Charles Sullivan. Most of it is flying right by me. There are two poems about Constance Markievicz (here’s a BBC profile) that introduced her to me. Every once in a while I run across these great stories of women from the early 20th century, suffragettes all, who totally blow my mind with their courage of conviction.

But I want to record this poem, which so far is the only one really sticking with me. It has made me pause many a night.

By Seamus Heaney

My father worked with a horse-plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horses strained at his clicking tongue.

An expert. He would set the wing
And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck

Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.

I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back
Dipping and rising to his plod.

I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow round the farm.

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.


March 3, 2013

Just home from seeing the delightful little piece of fluff Quartet. I always get excited when I see that a movie is based on a play because it generally means there will be lots of dialogue and character development, and very few explosions. This certainly met those expectations, and while it didn’t rise to high drama or comedy, it was a touching and sweet homage to great artists.

Since the film is all about retired classical musicians living in a nursing home, I kept getting these glimpses of terror of what will happen to me when I can no longer sing. As it is, I’ve lost an octave of my range since my twenties and I wasn’t good enough to get into the Bloomington Chamber Singers.

Which is a puzzlement and which takes me off-topic for a moment but really, not good enough for the Chamber Singers? I’ve heard them in a variety of contexts and I am better than some sopranos, worse than some. I’m not worse than all. I still have shreds of the old voice left. It was such a blow when I got the rejection. And completely puzzling. I kept replaying the audition in my mind. I sang Sebben Crudele. We were in the UU church, my favorite place to sing. As I sang the beautiful notes, the space warmed them up and gave them back to me. I actually got distracted at one point, marveling at the sound.

Imagine my surprise when Gerry Sousa said I was an alto. An alto? My lowest note is an E! My passaggio is B-flat. I top out around a high D but have higher notes when I’m in good voice. This is a textbook soprano voice. For the sight-singing exercise, he had me sing the alto line of some hymn. I couldn’t even hear it—I’ve been a soprano my whole life, I’ve always sung the top line, how in the hell am I supposed to hear the sandwiched part? He came up and sang it with me and I kept up but I couldn’t hit the lowest notes, which were Bs, I believe. I don’t know what the point of that was.

In the rejection note (a standard rejection note), he invited me to audition again, saying some people audition three or four times before getting in. Really? What makes them so much better the fourth time? I seriously want to know. I asked for feedback on my audition because I am honestly interested in understanding how my voice is heard and what I can improve on, but he didn’t reply to my email.

Everyone I talked to about it was incensed on my behalf, which was very kind. And they tried to console me with the fact that I don’t want to be singing dead white men’s music about Jesus, which is mostly true. I was really just looking for additional performance outlets and a more varied musical experience. And I’d like to improve my musicianship, which would certainly happen in that group.

The only thing I can think of is that people singing non-classical music often aren’t considered “real” singers by those in the classical world. When the audition form asked if I sang in any other languages, I put down yes—28 languages. That was a tip-off that I’m not doing the classical canon. And the geniuses of the Czech Republic and Georgia and Ireland and South Africa and Polynesia and the American South don’t count. I see this attitude on ChoralNet sometimes and it drives me nuts.

Anyway! I didn’t set out to bewail my fate at the hands of the Chamber Singers. I wrote because I glimpsed a future where I simply won’t have the chops anymore to do even the quiet folk singing of my Appalachian lullabies. What in the world will I do then??? What a desiccated existence.

When I listen to music, my whole body gets involved. It was happening at Akhnaten last night. Throughout the first act I kept moving my head and upper body in response to the music. I was probably driving the people behind me nuts. When I saw Lucia di Lammermoor at the MAC years ago, I remember walking out absolutely exhausted from breathing along with the lead. I am not a spectator to music. I am inside music. And even after an experience like Quartet, which is not high drama, I want to come home and play all my classical CDs and sing along and dance around the house. I want to feel it throbbing through me, riding the wave of my voice in a sacred pulse that is rooted deep in Gaia herself. And someday that will be gone.

On the drive home I was thinking, “At least I’ll still have history.” My love of history will continue to enthrall and inspire me as long as my brain holds out. But it’s not the same as music. I have looked deep inside my self to try to find the place where music started and as far down as I go, it’s always there. It is entwined in a double-helix with my spirit. When one dies, the other will go, too. Perhaps I should wish to die before I lose what’s left of my gift. I can’t imagine living without it. Life would never be as good. I can’t imagine wanting to retire from music, retire from performing. I understand that classical professionals have to due to lack of roles and the demands of touring and the physical inability to keep up with the material, but hey, look at the Rolling Stones. They’ll still be going strong at eighty.

When will I get tired of singing my Janis Joplin-inspired version of Summertime? Did Ella Fitzgerald sing A Tisket a Tasket her entire life just because it was a hit? Or Judy sing Over the Rainbow because people would throw things if she didn’t? I think they sang it because it was a part of them and they were always finding pleasure in discovering new aspects to it.

Music is constantly unfolding. And just when you think you’ve heard it every way possible, some artist comes along and finds a whole new facet. And that leads you to your own exploration and discoveries. It’s life, it’s the life force itself, pulsing and beaming and glimmering and unfolding into the infinite. And I am hungry for it. I never get enough of it. And it breaks my heart that there are some aspects that are beyond me now. I used to sing this heart-breaking rendition of Care Selve that was this Fred Astaire dancing love affair with the melody line and I can’t do it anymore. The tonal quality is gone and I can barely hit the highest notes. The thing I hold most dear, as precious to me as my own soul, is slipping from my fingers, growing dimmer as time goes by.

All right, I can’t bear to think about this anymore.

Philip Glass’ “Akhnaten”

March 2, 2013

I first heard Philip Glass‘ music when I experienced his score for Koyaanisqatsi. From the first notes I was completely enthralled. Glass’ music is highly repetitive and uses arpeggios and sawing motions on strings to create a trance-like state in the listener. It was a perfect accompaniment to the film, the entire experience of which left me profoundly moved. The ending is absolutely mesmerizing. Unforgettable.

I believe he wrote an operatic version of The Fall of the House of Usher. That’s what I recall, at any rate. I was in Dunn Meadow doing…something…and listened to the whole thing on WFIU on my crappy Walkman headphones. It was incredible. His music just transports me to a completely different place.

So I was very excited to learn last fall that IU opera was including Glass’ Akhnaten as part of their season. I went to see it last night with my friend Mike. And what a disappointment it was.

We went for the pre-show talk which was given by an IU professor of Middle Eastern studies. He gave an overview of the historical Akhenaten’s life (pharoah of the 18th dynasty in Egypt who is history’s first recorded monotheist.) The talk was fascinating. If it had a Philip Glass score and maybe a few sock puppets to show off costumes, it would’ve been a complete show right there.

IU opera always has great production values and Akhnaten was no different. The stage included a small “river” which was used to nice effect, the costumes were stunning, and there was a huge golden sun disk (Akhenaten worshipped Aten, the disk of the sun) that descended from the catwalks along with life-giving rays terminating in hands that just took my breath away. I started studying Egyptology in 1990 after a trip to the British Museum where I fell in love with the art and culture. That was also when I was being introduced to Paganism, and my very first ritual called on Egyptian gods. It was wonderful to see so many of these still images brought to life on stage.

As the first notes started in the violins, I felt myself getting sucked in. During the overture, chorus members playing Egyptians caught up in the Arab Spring moved slowly from vignette to vignette. I was a little confused but was willing to go along for the ride and just see where it would take me. Unfortunately it presaged things to come.

There’s no getting around it: Akhnaten is just a poor piece of work. Glass’ music is good but not a revelation. The killer is the writing. It was an example of why people hate studying history. All it did was recite the known facts of Akenaten’s life. It moved from one static tableau to another. Supertitles: “The crowd gathers for Amenhotep III‘s funeral.” The chorus gathers for a tableau of the funeral. “Aknaten prepares to be crowned.” Akhnaten prepares to be crowned. There was virtually no character present, no emotion, the barest suggestion of a plot, no emotional consequences of any action, and certainly no sub-plot.

The historical Akhenaten turned thousands of years of Egyptian history on its head when he moved the capital city and declared that all the traditional gods of Egypt were to be replaced by the single god Aten. He was married to Nefertiti, history’s most beautiful woman, and reigned for about 15 years. He was considered a heretic and all attempts were made to expunge his reign from Egypt’s history. You’d think there would be something to work with there.

I kept thinking of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Just in the first ten minutes, a bastard declares his intention to eliminate his legitimate half-brother in order to seize his inheritance, Lear sets up a contest whereby his daughters are to compete for shares of his kingdom based on their declarations of love for him, two treacherous daughters lay it on thick and please him, his beloved Cordelia refuses to play along, and he banishes her forever. And it just goes on from there. Shakespeare takes the barest historical event (“king abdicates in favor of daughters”) and gives it breath and scope in one of the English language’s greatest tragedies. He does it by infusing history with real people’s thoughts, actions, and emotions. And from a strictly dramatic point of view, he includes a sub-plot which explores themes related to the main plot. Now that’s theatre!

Akhnaten reminded me of medieval tableaux that would greet monarchs on their entrances into cities. When they came to significant crossroads, they would find an elaborate stage setting of a particular virtue (such as “virginity” for Elizabeth I). Costumed performers would declaim flowery poems on the topic, relating it to the monarch in a sycophantic fashion. Not exactly compelling stuff. But this is what Akhnaten consists of: Tableau after tableau. Snooze. Whoever created the blocking did a masterful job, desperately trying to make something happen onstage, but it still wasn’t enough. I kept flashing back to the last time I was in the MAC, listening to Carmina Burana, and how it was one of the most transcendent experiences of my life. And here I was writing a blog post in my head instead of being transported by the art onstage.

One thing to be said about the piece is that it’s a great work for chorus members. They are onstage almost the whole time. It’s possible they sing more than the leads do. And—bonus!—the music is so repetitive that it’s easier to memorize than standard fare. As usual for IU opera, the chorus was fantastic. Too bad they had such bad material to work with.

It was at least 30 minutes before Akhnaten began to sing. Possibly 40 minutes. Forty minutes of orchestral and choral work before the main character even opens his mouth! Ridiculous. The one positive side of that is that it gave me plenty of time to imagine his baritone voice. And then he opens up and—surprise!—he’s a countertenor! Mike and I guessed this was a choice based on the historical art depicting Akhenaten as having “feminized” features such as wide hips and a slight bustline. Nicholas Tamagna played Akhnaten and he had a beautiful, strong voice with just enough vibrato to carry clearly above the pit.

Writing a countertenor part also made for interesting trios with the two female characters in the show—something I’ve never seen before.

The one emotionally compelling component of the opera was at the opening of the second act where Akhnaten and Nefertiti sang a beautiful duet. It was masterfully blocked on a slowly revolving section of the stage, with the characters dressed in flowing toga-like costumes. They slid over and around each other, depicting a deep and sensitive love. The music at times had a medieval feel as the countertenor sang against the mezzo. It was a standout sequence in an otherwise arid wasteland.

The orchestra was pretty good, particularly the strings, but Glass is very hard on the horns—I heard a lot of fluffed notes, which is highly unusual for the Jacobs school.

There was this weird interject of a setting of a psalm. There was an historical hymn from ancient Egypt that informed the creation of the psalm found in the Old Testament. So Glass included a setting of it in the opera. The psalm, not the original hymn. The chorus came into the house (I’ve never seen this at an IU show), clothed in what perhaps were supposed to be Jewish tribal garments. They faced the pit and sang the psalm in Hebrew while Renaissance paintings of biblical themes were projected onto the scrim. It was bizarre. Mike and I conjectured that perhaps the treatment was to emphasize that we were jumping out of the timeline of the plot, but we agreed it was just weird.

The libretto had four authors but there were at least two scenes where the lyrics appeared to be “ah.” No lie. For like five minutes. “Ah! Ah! Ah!” Thrilling stuff.

Mike said the supertitles were just phoned in and I couldn’t agree more. At one point the chorus was singing in Akkadian (how often do you hear Akkadian?) and the supertitles said, “the people sing in Akkadian.” What?? What the hell were they saying? As Mike remarked, “show, don’t tell.” That summed up the failings of the show.

We had great seats and only had to pay student rates for the tickets, thanks to Mike’s ID. We had that great pre-show talk. The setting was pretty. And I had a decent chocolate chip cookie. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t worth $32.50. I will likely never risk a Philip Glass opera again. Thanks to Mike for making it bearable.