A GLASS ACT

COMPOSER PHILIP GLASS SEARCHES FOR A DIFFERENT KIND OF BEAUTY IN BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.

As composer Philip Glass holds a phone to his ear on one level of his spacious New York City home, a film crew from the Bravo cable network is setting up a shoot on the floor beneath him. "I don't know exactly what they're doing," Glass admits, exuding an air of exquisite indifference. "All I've heard is that it's for a program on `twentieth-century originals,' or something like that. They make up these things, you know."

Such is life for Glass, an acclaimed classical artist who for the past twenty years or so has experienced celebrity of rock-star dimensions. He floats easily through the worlds of opera, theater and dance, yet he also maintains high-profile friendships with pop artists many of his classical peers look upon with disdain. Far from viewing these associations as slumming, however, Glass describes them as opportunities for artistic growth.

"I wrote a song for Suzanne Vega a few weeks ago, pretty much for the hell of it--because I know her and there was the chance to do it, and because I thought it would be fun to do," he notes. "When I work with someone like her or Paul Simon or David Bowie, they bring something to the work that's new for me. And that's exciting. It's invigorating."

Although he's nearing sixty, Glass is pleased that he hasn't entirely lost his reputation as a classical enfante terrible--a figurative bomb-thrower with the temerity to believe that it's possible to make music that's both challenging and widely popular, at least by contemporary-classical standards. He takes great pride in his ability to upset expectations by blurring the lines between genres, and with his latest creation--La Belle et la Bete, an opera inspired by the gorgeous 1946 Jean Cocteau film released in this country under the title Beauty and the Beast--he's once again broken some substantial rules.

The scope of Glass's gamble with La Belle may not be immediately apparent. After all, his decision to juxtapose screenings of the film with live performances of his compositions is not without precedent: Symphonies across the country have frequently taken similar liberties with silent masterworks. But in those cases, the restored or newly composed scores didn't replace an existing soundtrack. By contrast, Glass's most certainly does. Everything from the film's original music to the unforgettable readings of Cocteau's cast, headed by Josette Day as Beauty and Jean Marais as the Beast, is turned off in favor of the newly penned opus (available in a lavish double-CD set on the Nonesuch label). Moreover, live vocalists interpreting the film's main characters are placed prominently on the stage and lit in theatrical fashion, so that they compete visually with the black-and-white marvel unspooling behind them.

"The general idea," Glass explains, "was to think of ways that film could be incorporated into live performance. Or, to put it somewhat differently, ways in which opera could incorporate film into live performance. Because opera's always drawn from plays and novels and the literature of its time. And yet film, which to my mind is the literature of its time, resists inclusion, because it's not a live performance art. So the whole enterprise was about transforming film from being a mechanically reproduced art form into one that could be interpretable in live performance.

"There were all kinds of fears about this notion--a whole list of them," he concedes, chuckling. "For example, we wondered, `Would the film overwhelm the performers?' Because Jean Marais is no slouch as the Beast, and it's one of the most visually beautiful of all films. But, in fact, the concept works amazingly well--better than I expected it to, to be frank. What happens, in effect, is that the singers become alter egos to the characters that you're seeing on the screen. In a sense, they almost merge with them. It's actually a kind of trick we play with our minds when we're watching it: The singing La Belle and the acting La Belle start to become the same person. It's very interesting psychologically."

Glass expected that cinematic purists might be offended by La Belle, and with good reason. One can construe the composer's project as a violation of the film's initial form--the sonic equivalent of colorization. Glass rejects this charge: "The original film is intact--we happen just not to be listening to the soundtrack," he says. "Audiences aren't simply watching the film. They're experiencing a live performance, which is precisely what I intended it to be. In fact, I legally can't make a video or a movie using this new soundtrack. The original composer's family allowed me to perform it live by turning off his soundtrack, but I'm not allowed to remove it. They wanted to protect the integrity of the original version, and I think they're quite right. Replacing the original score was never our objective.

"Thus far, everyone has seemed to understand my intentions," he goes on. "We haven't been to Los Angeles yet--we're scheduled to do four shows there--but we've performed it in New York, London, Amsterdam, Madrid and other places where people know film, and no one's squawked yet."

If that's true, the response to La Belle is virtually unprecedented in Glass's career, which has been marked for decades by sniping from all quarters. He was born in Baltimore and received his musical education by listening to the classical recordings that went unsold at his father's radio-repair shop. His first instrument was the violin, followed closely by the flute, which he studied rigorously throughout his youth. He was only fifteen when he enrolled at the University of Chicago (his majors were philosophy and mathematics), and upon his graduation four years later, he was granted admission to New York's Juilliard School and began studying music in earnest.

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