Philip Glass, the Baltimore-born composer with the distinctive minimalist style that has won him a global fan base, turns periodically to historic figures and events to find subject matter for operas. In "Appomattox," which opens this weekend at the Kennedy Center in an extensively revised version, the composer tackles a century's worth of our past.
"The biggest story in America is the Civil War," says Glass, 78. "We never got over it. We're still living it."
The composer has been living with "Appomattox" for the past few years in a way he hadn't expected.
After the original version of the piece was premiered by the San Francisco Opera in 2007, Glass moved on to various other projects. But his librettist for "Appomattox," Christopher Hampton, who won an Academy Award in 1988 for the screenplay to "Dangerous Liaisons," based on his play, used the opera's theme as the basis for a new play.
Hampton's "Appomattox" premiered in 2012 at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. The playwright expanded greatly on parallels between 1865 and 1965 — the Civil War and civil rights — that the opera had touched upon, adding such characters as Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr. and George Wallace.
Glass saw that play and "told Christopher that if we get a chance, we have to rewrite the opera," the composer says. "And the opportunity came up."
Cue Francesca Zambello, artistic director of Washington National Opera.
"I felt there were things in the [first] 'Appomattox' that had not been developed," Zambello says. "After Christopher had done his version of the story as a play, which had much more about 100 years after the Civil War, I met Christopher and Philip to figure out a way to get them to expand on the opera's second act."
Washington National Opera, which has never staged a Glass opera, offered to produce the revised work. This "Appomattox" has a brand new second act; the first act underwent assorted alterations.
"We're proud to be presenting it," Zambello says. "Philip really spent time fixing things. He's the first person to change something if he sees it doesn't work."
Glass found fresh motivation for the project in the 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court in 2013 that struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, allowing nine states to alter election laws without getting federal approval.
When the original version of "Appomattox" premiered in 2007, "it never occurred to me that the Supreme Court would gut the Voting Rights Act," Glass says, "and that there would be all the attempts at voter suppression. I didn't see that coming. We have to address what's going on."
Zambello has invited all the members of the Supreme Court to attend the opera, which, in Act 2, focuses on the drive to pass the 1965 law, and the attacks on civil rights workers in the South. An epilogue, which moves the action ahead to 2011, looks at an unrepentant Klansman who was involved in the murders of three civil rights activists in 1964.
A closing chorus offers these words: "The time has come to call a halt to bloodshed. ... But this is not the last time. What has occurred must ever recur. This will not be the last time."
As Glass sees it, "at the end of the opera, we're in the middle of Black Lives Matter."
The opera's tough issues come with some tough language. The baritone portraying Johnson is called upon to sing a particularly rich assortment of off-color expressions not normally encountered in an opera house.
"Lyndon Johnson was famous for his purple prose," Glass says. "If we made him sound as eloquent as General Lee, it would be laughable. We didn't want to clean up the language just because of social norms. I have never set that kind of language [to music], but I was surprised at how easy it was."