By Eve Connell
Creativity and Collaboration: An Evening with Philip Glass
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Kridel Ballroon at PAM

Listening to Philip Glass last Tuesday night, before Portland Opera’s Orphée production this weekend, was indeed a tremendous way “to give us as an audience and a community the opportunity to see how a brilliant artist works.” Glass covered his influences (art house movies, Paris), collaboration with filmmakers and other artists (Errol Morris, Godfrey Reggio, Chuck Close), his experiences and initial prejudices with working in film (the missing element), but actually spent most of the evening presenting the Jean Cocteau trilogy that fueled some powerful, magical work.
Through a critical discussion of film, Glass offered us “earth, wind, and fire, the elements that make the art” – text, image, movement, music (accepting audience as the fifth element in this line up). The one big negative in film, he duly noted, is that “compared to dance, to theater…it’s not an interpretative art. Film is definitive.” He explained that all interpretations of a film remain intact, no matter how many times the piece is remade. “It’s more or less the same every time you see it.” The missing element? “The ability for other teams of people to take work and reinterpret…works live in a container they can’t break out of.” But, these works also take on a different life due to multiple productions over time. Such a legacy of performances and their interpretations (Glass had us think about thousands of Carmen performances) also allow the work to grow in depth and complexity. “This legacy has its own history and meaning, and takes on a super identity.”
The more Glass became enamored and involved with film, and this idea of legacy from performance interpretation, the more he thought about breaking the traditional mold. (Not a surprise.) He realized that the “synchronization of image and music could work…positively.” He wanted film to embrace real-time performance which has a quality that transcends any kind of recorded performance. Glass hoped to create or combine this ideal in film and, equipped with what he labels “Cocteau’s coherent body of work” (La Belle et La Bête , Les Infants Terribles, Orphée), set out to do so. Why Cocteau? “Everything Cocteau had to say about art and life, life and death, is in these films.” The artist’s life and the creative process come alive in these stories, heavily laden with symbolism. (Key, horse, rose, mirror, glove figure prominently.) But the power of turning our ordinary world into a magical place is not just merely the power of the artist – it’s actually possible for everyone to access the power of transformation. “Cocteau’s transformation of the world comes from magic, magic that comes through the power of the artist, and really, everyone.” Glass directs: “If we know the five symbols, we can rule our lives effectively.”
Glass believes that art is a social phenomenon. That it is collaborative by its very nature. That there’s a transaction that happens between composer, performer, audience. “It’s not abstract. It’s something that happens between us.” The Portland Opera presentation of Glass’ Orphée offers pure magic via collaboration this weekend and next. The piece combines real-time operatic performance with cinematic performance. Live music is synchronized with imagery. Identities and themes perhaps merge, and certainly play between stage and screen. The mold is broken. We are all in for a powerful treat.