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Notes from the Director and Conductor of Galileo Galilei

A Note from the Director

by James Robinson

Galileo Galilei was, in fact, not originally planned to be a part of this Festival Season. When another new work we had planned to premiere in 2024 revealed itself to be not quite ready for prime time, we were required to do something Opera Theatre has had to do occasionally: pivot. There are many criteria taken into consideration when something like this happens, including the scale of an opera, the forces required, the orchestration, and so on. Ultimately, it’s important to find an opera that balances out the rest of the season.

As I was looking at several titles, all recently composed operas, I was reminded of a piece that fascinated me: Philip Glass’ Galileo Galilei. Originally commissioned and first performed by Chicago’s Goodman Theatre some 20 years ago, Galileo Galilei makes very infrequent appearances in American opera houses compared with the composer’s other operas. The success of Glass’ The Trial, which OTSL presented in its American premiere in 2017, was a guiding star, so it made perfect sense to mount a new production of Galileo Galilei.

There is something increasingly relevant and resonant about Galileo the man, and how he faced charges of heresy for reconciling the study of science with the dogma of the Church. A devout Catholic, Galileo explained that faith and science could co-exist and benefit one another. Perhaps his most famous quote is the most revealing: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”

Galileo Galilei takes us on the journey of the older Galileo reflecting on his life. It focuses not just on the accusations and trials he endured with the Pope and the Church but also the tender relationship he had with his illegitimate daughter who was shuttered away in a convent. In fact, much of the opera’s libretto is drawn from letters between father and daughter in addition to other historical documents that explore Galileo’s work as inventor, astronomer, and astrologist. There is also something inherently “operatic” about the life of Galileo: his father was a founding member of the Florentine Camerata, responsible for the creation of the first operas in the final years of the Renaissance.

My creative team and I draw much inspiration from the various aspects of Galileo’s life. The theater and spectacle of the Church also played a major factor in guiding our visual and dramatic choices, along with the gorgeous Fellini film Roma. As mentioned before, it’s remarkable to consider just how resonant Galileo’s personal and professional struggles are today, and we hope to shine a light on how strangely the present resembles the past.

A Note from the Conductor

by Kwamé Ryan

Even as a teenage student, my interest in science and technology was almost equal to that in music. So, when I was recently offered the opportunity to work with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis on Galileo Galilei, an opera about a scientist, with a score incorporating elements of music technology, I didn’t hesitate to jump onboard!

Apart from my curiosity regarding Philip Glass’ use of samples and synthesizers, which are a hobby of mine and have experienced a quantum leap in their development since this work’s premiere in 2002, I was excited to explore the connections between the planetary orbits within Galileo’s posited solar system and the motion of Glass’ instrumental lines within the strong gravity of his rhythmic and harmonic systems. I also enjoyed the libretto’s poetic allusions to Eos, the Goddess of Dawn, aptly underscored by musical lines emulating the mysterious nature of light; wavelike in shape, but particulate in the stacking of their arpeggiated notes.

However, once I started looking beyond these evocative but superficial resonances, something else jumped out at me that has made my time with this elegant work even more intriguing. Glass’ 11-piece ensemble — a model of creative constraint — while often embodying the dispassionate order of the cosmos, in some scenes delivers a strikingly earth-bound and expressive range of motifs.

While this more human affect is unsurprising where the narrative depicts the ideological discussions of Galileo’s contemporaries — the intellectual exchanges with his colleagues or his navigation of the inquisition, for example — in the final scene, we hear Glass adding a warm, lighthearted humor that is unique within the musical language of the work. This final scene is an opera within the opera, which depicts the imagined music of Galileo’s composer-father, tells the story of Orion and Eos, and completes the telescoped narrative of Galileo’s life (we open the opera towards the end of his life, and end with his childhood).

I wonder whether in this final mix of myth and mirth, we might interpret an authorial world view that contrasts the perspectives which give rise to some of the unfortunate events of the narrative. Is it that in the midst of our never-ending search to understand the nature of the universe and our place in it, an awareness of “the lightness of being” is proposed? And might that “lightness,” far from the short-sighted belief systems that arrest the imaginations of some of the opera’s characters, be a sense of freedom that arises alongside an understanding that the universe may well lack inherent meaning; that it cannot be understood and certainly neither orbits the earth, nor indeed, its inhabitants?

I hope you enjoy your experience of Galileo Galilei and invite you to judge for yourself!

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Leadership support for Galileo Galilei comes from the Whitaker Foundation.    

Made possible in part by the Fred M. Saigh Endowment at Opera Theatre and the Sally S. Levy Family Fund for New Works.

This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.

James Robinson’s engagement is made possible with generous support from the William T. Kemper Foundation and David & Dotty Kemper.