Composer Philip Glass on Appomattox
“The history of Appomattox began in 2005 when David Gockley—then head of Houston Grand Opera—invited me and writer Christopher Hampton to prepare the opera in Texas. I was interested in a southern opera company and was very happy to begin a new project with David, who had already produced three of my operas in Houston. As it turned out, the premiere of Appomattox took place with San Francisco Opera in 2007, after David moved to that city to become the company’s general manager.
The first production of Appomattox took the story from the fall of Richmond in 1865 in Act I, to the murder of three civil rights workers in Tennessee in 1965. Christopher Hampton has remained the author of the original libretto and continues as such for today’s new production.
Francesca Zambello, Artistic Director of Washington National Opera, came to me with an invitation for a new production of Appomattox to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. By then, Christopher had already adapted the opera for a theatrical production at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. He had expanded the story to include recent events in the political life of our country—a wave of new laws mainly in southern states that were intended to take the teeth out of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Voting Rights Act of 1965. Surprising to many, these laws were upheld by our Supreme Court.
This, along with new anti-immigration laws and “time-honored” general gerrymandering of voting districts, has led to a new crisis in the form of voter suppression and a general attack on the poor—both white and black. It has also led to a broad rejection of the multicultural population that has always been at the heart of change and innovation in American life, going back to our country’s colonial history.
In this new iteration of Appomattox, Act I covers the fall of Richmond and concludes with the actual events in the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, when Robert E. Lee surrendered his part of the Confederate Army to Ulysses S. Grant, leading to the collapse of the Confederate States’ attempt to secede from the Union. The main players in Act I are Generals Lee and Grant, as well as President Lincoln.
Act II takes place in 1965, mainly in the White House Oval Office, along with several scenes featuring the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. The main players of Act II are President Johnson, Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Alabama Governor George Wallace, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Now, 50 years after 1965, we see the conservative “push back” to President Johnson’s powerful legislation guaranteeing equal voting rights for all Americans. This is a most unusual situation. Effectively, the wave of current events has required a new Appomattox, the Opera. It’s a real question as to whether this will be the final Appomattox.
Perhaps we have stumbled upon a radically new approach to opera, where “Art” struggles to keep up with rapidly changing events in “Life.” For Christopher Hampton and myself, this may well be our final Appomattox. But I expect that within, say, the next 20 years, there will be new twists and turns to the Appomattox story that could require a new Act III.”