Philip Glass' 'Galileo Galilei' Is More Than a Musical Challenge

Composer Philip Glass’ 18th opera, Galileo Galilei, telescopes the conflict between genius and dogma in 10 scenes, moving backward in time as Old Galileo looks back on his life. By opera standards, it’s brief: 90 minutes without an intermission.

Jul 10, 2013 at 8:52 am
click to enlarge Andrew Garland (Young Galileo)
Andrew Garland (Young Galileo)

Galileo Galilei was a mathematician, a philosopher, a physicist and above all, an astronomer who was a pious Roman Catholic. He was good friends with the Pope Urban VIII until his defense of heliocentrism, the belief that the earth revolves around the sun, ran afoul of church authorities. In 1616, the Vatican forced him to recant, banned his books and condemned him to house arrest (he died in 1642). 

Composer Philip Glass’ 18th opera, Galileo Galilei, telescopes the conflict between genius and dogma in 10 scenes, moving backward in time as Old Galileo looks back on his life. By opera standards, it’s brief: 90 minutes without an intermission.

Premiered in Chicago in 2002, Galileo is set to an English libretto by dramatist Mary Zimmerman and poet Arnold Weinstein and Cincinnati Opera scores a hat trick with its upcoming production: it’s the first Glass opera in a new production to be staged at The School for Creative and Performing Arts’ Corbett Theater.

The production team faced unusual challenges: design a set for Galileo and next year’s SCPA production, La Calisto, and design costumes for performers taking on multiple roles. Set designer David Centers and costume designer Reba Senske are CO veterans; director Ted Huffman is a CO newbie, acclaimed for his staging of contemporary works.

The story’s backward flow didn’t faze Centers.

“Looking up is what Galileo did and what got him into trouble, so I started with that simple concept,” Centers explains. Italian Renaissance architecture inspired his concept to use several columns of different heights. “They are major support structures for a crazy maze and steps which lead upward toward the heavens,” he says. “It’s more abstract architecture evoking a feeling.”

The score itself challenged Centers to create a set that was easy to navigate, because the music’s fluidity defies a static staging. Director Huffman notes that although Galileo’s libretto is based on historic events, the unreliability of memory — in this case, Galileo’s — allows for poetic license. “With memory, we tend to remember some details and not others. So the world we’re creating for Old Galileo may be more abstract and irregular,” he says.

Movement coordinator Yara Travieso assists the performers with creating a style in sync with memories that recall the past and anticipate the future. “We utilize the whole cast to create these worlds in flux, constantly shifting to create a fabric of the world that flows through the space,” Travieso says.

For Senske, fluidity of movement and multiple roles meant simplifying details. “The performers need to be tagged in time — early 17th century Italy — but not too fussy,” she says. Like the set, costumes are evocative without being specific. “They’re very tight in the color range and very simple. If they were too fussy, they would be all wrong with the music.”

There’s unanimous praise for SCPA’s Corbett Theater, a state-of-the-art, 750-seat venue with perfect sight lines and acoustics. Sit in the back row of the balcony and you’ll hear and see everything. Intimate is the designers’ favorite descriptor, especially in comparison to Music Hall’s cavernous space, although looks can be deceiving. “We discovered that the Corbett stage’s width is only five feet smaller than Music Hall’s,” Huffman says. “The stage is epic but it’s still intimate.”

It’s the ideal venue for Glass’s score, by turns dream-like and dramatic as memories haunt Old Galileo. The music is among Glass’s most accessible scores, beautifully orchestrated with expressive, melodic lines for singers, and the signature pulsations. A recording of a live performance by Portland Opera won’t be released until the fall, but segments are posted on YouTube.

“The piece is super approachable, with really beautiful, long vocal lines and a smaller orchestra,” Huffman says. There will be surcaps for the English libretto. 

Galileo is very personal and intimate,” Centers says. “And in this theater, it’s going to be fantastic.”

There’s also a special resonance for Centers, an SCPA alum. “When I was a sophomore, the school hired CO’s resident designer Jay Depenbock as a professional designer for one of their shows,” Centers recalls. “After I worked with him, he invited me to work in the CO’s scene shop the following summer. I did and I’ve been with CO for 26 seasons.”

“Now I’m being hired as a professional designer to work at SCPA, working with SCPA trainees, so it’s come full circle. And I hope we’re inspiring this new crop that’s coming up.” 

GALILEO GALILEI runs July 11-21 at SCPA’s Corbett Theater. Opening night sold out; limited tickets for remaining performances: 513-241-2742,