In the Realm of the Voices: Composer Philip Glass Sets Two David Henry Hwang Plays to Plangent Music

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Most composers might consider writing music a singularly solitary, even lonely endeavor. Not Philip Glass. The popular minimalist is the king of collaborators. For more than four decades, he has been writing music for films, plays, dances and operas, in addition to an impressive body of work for the concert stage. And an overwhelming majority of his oeuvre (he guesses 80 percent) has been created in collaboration with other artists, all of whom feed into and inspire his compositions.

Glass's latest theatrical endeavor, The Sound of a Voice, is an evening of two chamber operas created not for the opera house but specifically for the theatre. Commissioned and premiered in May by the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., where it ran in repertory for five weeks, the production is currently on the boards at Chicago's Court Theatre, where it continues through Nov. 2.

For The Sound of a Voice, which was directed by ART artistic director Robert Woodruff, Glass collaborated with Tony-winning playwright David Henry Hwang, who also teamed up with the composer on the 1988 sci-fi spectacle 1000 Airplanes on the Roof and the 1992 Metropolitan Opera commission The Voyage. For their third undertaking, the 66-year-old Glass was drawn to two of Hwang's earliest plays, written when the playwright was in his early twenties. They had made such an impression when Joseph Papp produced them in the 1980s that they still resonated with Glass after nearly 20 years. "I liked the simplicity, the clarity, the directness of the stories and David's style," Glass recalls. "They are very pared-down stories, just a man and a woman and the things that pass between them. What interested me is that by the end of each play, both characters are dramatically changed."

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In the first opera, also called The Sound of a Voice, an aging samurai (Herbert Perry in a tightly coiled performance) stumbles across a mysterious woman (Suzan Hanson in a carefully calibrated portrayal), living in seclusion deep in the forest. According to rumors that abound in the nearby villages, she is a kind of witch imbued with magical powers. Hwang presents the woman as an amalgam of spirits from Japanese folktales, particularly the fox spirit, which, according to legend, masquerades as a beautiful woman to seduce wanderers, often playing tricks with her victims' sexual desire. Is the woman really a witch, or is she merely trapped by the man's perception of her? While he puzzles over who she is and what powers she might possess, the woman ponders the nature of his visit. Has he come to woo her or kill her? As the two dance a tenuous tango--she reveling simply in "the sound of a voice" from another human being, he becoming bewitched by her gentle grace--they draw closer. This burgeoning intimacy threatens to expose their inner vulnerability and engender a dependence neither is quite prepared to handle.

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Hwang sees the opera as a metaphor for the way men and women relate--the power plays, the preconceptions. "I suppose I've put a modern psychological and social spin on the traditional Japanese figure," he told ART's associate dramaturg Ryan McKittrick in an interview.

The companion piece, Hotel of Dreams, is a contemporary tale set in the 1970s. A writer in the waning days of his career (in a dazzling bit of thematically linked casting, he is played by Eugene Perry, Herbert's twin brother) visits a mysterious brothel that caters to insomniac old men needing solace and seeking to relive the dreams of their youth. For a fee, they are allowed to sleep with young naked women so drugged they can provide little more than the comfort of a warm body, becoming a passive vessel for helping the sleep-deprived unlock pent-up dreams. The uneasy relationship that develops between the writer and the Madam (portrayed by Janice Felty) is the heart of the story. Again, it's an encounter between two lonely, disenfranchised characters hiding secrets they don't trust themselves to divulge. …