According to the composer, this work is the culmination of his two other biographical operas, Einstein on the Beach (about Albert Einstein) and Satyagraha (about Mahatma 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.
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 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. Akhnaten’s Hymn to the Sun is sung in the language of the audience.
The orchestra’s size is about the size employed for early 19th-century opera: 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (both doubling oboe d’amore), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 french horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, percussion (3 players), celesta (doubling synthesizer), 12 violas, 8 celli, 6 double basses.
Since the Stuttgart State Opera house was being restored in 1984 and the orchestra pit of the Kleines Haus at the Stuttgart State Theatre, where the premiere was to take place, was considerably smaller, Glass chose to completely leave out the violins (about 20), giving the orchestra a darker, sombre character, which fits the subject. Apart from this, this was Glass’s most “conventional” opera orchestra until then (compared to Einstein on the Beach, written for the six-piece Philip Glass Ensemble, and Satyagraha, scored for woodwinds and strings only).
Generally speaking, for the unprepared listener the music of this opera is more accessible than that of its predecessors, the “hardcore” minimalist Einstein and the oratorio-like Satyagraha. The music follows and underlines the dramatic context outlined by the story, and the harmonic and melodic language is more varied and changes more often, giving the music a more theatrical and almost “romantic” quality.