Glass in Rome for Wednesday, March 27, 2019

For the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, an international arts festival was planned, and, as its centerpiece, a gigantic day-long music-theater work designed and coordinated by the avant-garde American director Robert Wilson. Wilson titled the projected work “Civil Wars.” The story line was loosely inspired by Matthew Brady’s famous photographs of America’s own Civil War, but also incorporated myths, images, and historical icons from around the world. The idea was that the various sections of the work would be contributed by a team of composers, each connected by what Wilson called “knee plays”—short “joints” if you will, linking the parts to the whole. The “knee play” music was contributed by the American pop musician David Byrne, a member of the “Talking Heads.” The Fifth and final act of “Civil Wars” was written by the minimalist composer Philip Glass. It was dubbed “The Rome Section,” since it was commissioned and performed as a separate work by the Rome Opera on today’s date in 1984. Glass acknowledged that he wanted to address the nearly 400-year old tradition of Italian opera, and so included an impassioned tenor aria… a modern version of the sword-waving, act-ending cabalettas in the operas of Verdi. In the end, Wilson’s day-long epic never was staged in Los Angeles as planned. The reason given at the time was “funding problems.”