Akhnaten is an opera based on the life and religious convictions of the pharaoh Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV), written by the American minimalist composer Philip Glass in 1983, and first performed in 1984 by the Stuttgart Opera.
Editorial note: the composer uses the spelling Akhnaten, while the more conventional version is Akhenaten. Given the nature of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the absence of a vowel is not linguistically significant. In this article the first version refers to the opera and the second to the pharaoh.
According to the composer, this work is the culmination of his two other biographical operas, Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha (about Mohandas Gandhi). These three people — Akhenaten, Einstein and Gandhi — were all driven by an inner vision which altered the age in which they lived, in particular Akhenaten in religion, Einstein in science, and Gandhi in politics.
Although critics of the minimalist school of music often describe minimalism otherwise, many listeners find this opera powerful, emotional and extremely moving. The tragedy of Akhenaten's life and times is always present, if only in the background and every musical phrase is imbued with an aura of antiquity.
The text, taken from original sources, is sung in the original languages, linked together with the commentary of a narrator in a modern language, such as English or German. Egyptian texts of the period are taken from a poem of Akhenaten himself, from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and from extracts of decrees and letters from the Amarna period, the seventeen-year period of Akhenaten's rule. Other portions are in Akkadian and Biblical Hebrew.
The opera is divided into three acts:
Act I: Year 1 of Akhnaten's Reign in Thebes
Act II: Years 5 to 15 in Thebes
Act III: Year 17 and the Present
Enthusiasts view the work as an overwhelming piece of opera-craft that transports the receptive listener to ancient Egypt.