Philip Glass never expected In the Penal Colony to be a success. “When I wrote it, I thought, it’ll get done once and then no one will ever do it again,” Glass said. “Why would you want to watch a suicide? Basically that’s what you’re doing. And it turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong. I would say it’s the most performed opera that I’ve written.”
Glass’s misgivings are understandable. Even for the world’s most famous living composer, In the Penal Colony doesn’t exactly scream “crowd pleaser.” Written at the outset of World War I and published in 1919, Franz Kafka’s brief, bleak tale is set in a penal colony, where The Visitor has been invited to witness an execution. The Officer in charge wants him to endorse to the colony’s new commander the continuation of the peculiar — and horrific — execution method devised by the now deceased Old Commander. The killing machine, called The Apparatus, tortures condemned prisoners to death by excruciatingly inscribing, over up to 12 hours, a description of their crimes directly on their flesh. The prisoners are never told the nature of their crimes, but readers discover that this one was condemned for failing to salute his superior’s door each hour. The Officer believes the tormented prisoners achieve ecstatic enlightenment at the moment of death.
The apparently more enlightened new regime recoils at the Apparatus’s barbarity, and so does The Visitor. And yet, “it’s always risky interfering in other peoples’ business,” he sings in Glass’s opera. “I oppose this procedure, but I will not intervene.”
Kafka’s grim allegory sent shudders through an Industrial Revolution society besotted with emergent technology’s promise. When science was sundered from morality, modern inventions could have a dark side, distancing humans from the consequences of their actions, numbing us to the dangers of our ingenuity.
In the Penal Colony seems to predict so much of the terrible human history that followed, from the mechanization of malevolence to the failure of good people to stop evil, and much more. An obvious comparison is to the bureaucrats and soldiers who carried industrial level atrocities like murdering millions in gas chambers or with weapons of mass destruction during World War II and the mass slaughters that followed in the 20th century. If Kafka, a Czech Jew, had lived a few more decades, he might have fallen victim to a real life successor to his imagined apparatus.
“The genius of Kafka is that he evokes so much,” wrote the opera’s original stage director, Glass’s longtime collaborator JoAnne Akalaitis, “the mechanized corporate world sanctifying and saluting itself; how one accounts for atrocity; the tedium and ritual of bureaucracy; the pain and pathology of memory; how our most clever institutions and devices can betray us.”
Those issues persist, which may account for the opera’s popularity. The year after Glass’s version premiered in Seattle, the United States began imprisoning people captured during its attack on Afghanistan, and torturing them for information, without due process of law or, in many cases, compelling evidence of threat or hostility to Americans. Today, we’re encountering the consequences of similar irrational exuberance. Digital “apparati” — from social media to facial recognition — that promised more connection, wealth and access to information are used to undermine democracy, change election results, enable stalkers and trollers, spread dangerous and even deadly lies, and facilitate oppression by governments and exploitation by greedy private interests. Kafka’s tale of the dark side of scientific idealism feels as ominous now as it did a century ago.
Half a century and half a world away from its origins, In the Penal Colony nevertheless touched the young Philip Glass. “I’ve been reading Kafka seriously since I was 15,” and already in college at the University of Chicago. “For a young person, the sense of strangeness and the bizarre is very attractive,” he says. “There’s a sort of authenticity about it. He’s a doorway into the world of the imagination.”
“The theme of enlightenment or transfiguration is what motivated me” to write In the Penal Colony, Glass told The New York Times. “There’s a crucial moment when we find out that the old commander used to want children to have priority during the executions, to be right down in front. He says that at this moment, knowledge and understanding floods their faces. If you listen to the music, it’s hard to miss that.”
Glass was especially fascinated by “the moral inversion that takes place,” at the transformative moment when The Officer, “having started as all-powerful, becomes the victim, and he takes on the role with a kind of joy.” Readers find themselves sympathizing more with a man willing to die for his insane yet genuinely held beliefs than for The Visitor, who’s unwilling to take a moral stand against something he knows to be repugnant. Instead he merely retreats.
That insight into the dark side of humanity appealed to the composer. “Kafka, I think, is suggesting that the mere fact of our human incarnation is enough to make us guilty,” Glass muses. “One of the attractive things about the story for me as a composer is its formality. The Visitor gets away, but, by avoiding judgment, actually fails. The Officer, in a strange way, redeems himself. It’s a perfectly calibrated outcome, like a trap for a hummingbird.”
Glass wasn’t able to realize his vision of setting Kafka to music for many years. Even though he’s written more than a dozen symphonies and hundreds of chamber and solo works, Glass has always considered himself foremost a theater composer. But despite his critical successes with his famous operas (Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, Akhnaten) created in collaboration with the visionary stage director/designer Robert Wilson, in the 1990s, Glass still faced resistance from the big, conservative opera companies. So he embarked on a series of what he called “pocket operas” scored for just a few performers. In the Penal Colony (which uses a libretto by American screenwriter and novelist Rudolph Wurlitzer) uses a standard string quartet plus a string bass for added gravitas. With only two singing roles, it all fit comfortably on the stage of Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre, where I saw its premiere in 2000.
Its relatively restrained scale, length (under 90 minutes) and cost — as well as its continuing contemporary relevance — have made In the Penal Colony one of the most frequently performed of Glass’s dozens of operas, with more than 120 performances in a single year.
Like the story itself, Glass’s score achieves its power not through obvious horror-film blasts and shrieks but through urgent intimacy that contrasts vividly with the actions being described. What makes Kafka’s original especially chilling is the narrator’s almost calm, detached tone in describing events and ideas that are so horrific. With no narrator onstage, Glass’s gripping music takes that role, finding the same ominous calm before the storm — then slowly ratcheting the dramatic tension to the breaking point. The score’s characteristic repetitions evoke the grinding inexorability of the infernal machine, almost numbing listeners into acceptance of the unacceptable. Above those heartbeat rhythms float hauntingly poignant tenor and baritone melodies.
Making Darkness Visible
It was Glass’s score, more than the story itself, that attracted Imago Theater founder Jerry Mouawad to the project. With his gift for conjuring historical images, as in his triumphant 2016 production La Belle, and for using movement to express deeper feelings than words alone can convey, as in the long-running, world famous Frogz and many other Imago productions, Mouawad would seem an ideal director/designer for Kafka’s tale.
Yet at first he wasn’t sure. “When I first read the Kafka story, it really sent chills down my spine,” Mouawad remembers. “It’s most disturbing and graphic – capital punishment and extreme torture that spits out a highly questionable redemption.” Did he really want to spend so much time in Kafka’s dark world?
Listening to Glass’s score “softened” the horror a bit and provided major inspiration for Mouawad’s staging. “I was listening to the opera probably for 20-30 hours, taking notes on my phone,” he recalls. “I need to know what story the opera is conveying, and [extensive listening] gives me an emotional quality.”
In some of his early 1990s works, Mouawad had been drawn to and influenced by Glass’s famous collaborations with Robert Wilson and their repetitive, radical temporal concepts of stretched out time. “In this one, though, he’s not doing that as much as propelling the story forward fast,” Mouawad says. “I love the way he’s both sustaining a moment and building to the next.”
Thematic ideas were bouncing around in his head too. In the Penal Colony is “kind of the opposite of Frankenstein,” Mouawad says. “He’s creating death instead of life. It’s also a courtroom where the Officer is trying to make his case to the Visitor, but also the audience.
“Kafka seems to ask us poignant questions,” Mouawad says. “Is humankind in a tailspin, an endless cycle? Does darkness reign until light emerges, only long enough until we deem it necessary that darkness return again?”
Now Mouawad had to decide how to turn those ideas into stage action. Surprisingly for a director who made his reputation through movement, going back to his studies with mime theater master Jacques Le Coq in the 1970s, he didn’t start with action.
“It’s a puzzle in every theater piece,” he explains. “I’m looking for an opening: it could be the character, a line, a feeling — that piece that starts to tell you what’s going on. Having a design always gives me a place to start. The most difficult thing for me is always a bare stage. I need to know what the space is, then things open up. From there, you’re working instinctually.”
Here, that space is the setting of Kafka’s story: a pit. Mouawad designed a scenic element in sand and dirt and rocks, with the Officer in the middle. “In my design he’s pulling out parts from the dirt and describing each one, kind of exposing the machine slowly as the opera progresses.”
The turn-of-the-20th century setting also sparked ideas. When we talked in midwinter, Mouawad hadn’t yet finalized his ideas, but he was leaning toward early 20th century garb appropriate to the story, and somehow involving the advent of electrical power happening around that time. “I want to give the director — me — options,” he says. “I’m looking for all the different possibilities of staging and designing, giving myself an open space” for action.
As these ideas germinate, Mouawad makes them as tangible and visual as possible. “I’m living in that world,” he says. “It’s ongoing in my head. I’ll grab anything and sketch on it, write on it, physically make a miniature of the set. I don’t design on computer. I’ll give [Portland Opera’s crew] a scale model and they build it from there.”
Once he’s created the world, Mouawad then has to populate it. Once he chooses his cast, based on the way they move and present themselves in auditions and rehearsals, he’ll devise the final crucial element: how they move through that eerie, Kafkaesque space in Newmark Theatre, where he and Portland Opera singers and musicians will conjure Kafka’s century old nightmare vision again for a 21st century audience for whom the story remains as regrettably relevant as ever.
Portland Opera’s production of Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony runs July 26-August 10 in the opera’s Hampton Opera Center
211 SE Caruthers St., Portland. A shorter version of this story appears in Portland Opera’s magazine Toi Toi Toi.
Want to read more music news in Oregon, Digital Heaven, and beyond? Support Oregon ArtsWatch