Reflections on Gilgamesh

Emma Clarkson
4 May 2017
ENGL 438 Performing American Literature


My project this semester has been to propose and create an opera adaptation of the ancient Gilgamesh epic, using Yusef Komunyakaa and Chad Gracia’s 2006 verse play Gilgamesh as a starting point for the libretto, then completing a production proposal and a design portfolio. I believe that I have accomplished what I set out to create, in some form or another; but the project was always going to be incomplete, because of the manifold impossibility of creating a complete opera from scratch in the course of a semester. In reflecting on Gilgamesh the opera, then, I find myself very much midway, looking back at the work of this semester and forward to what form the project might take in the future.

In my proposal, I originally described my project as “a portfolio that proposes, describes, and illustrates the composition and production of an opera based on the Gilgamesh opera.” That proposal fulfilled the first verb, describing the research that I had begun by looking into literary sources for Gilgamesh and extant musical adaptations of the story, which were fascinatingly both diverse and obscure. In the proposal, I described how one could consider using Komunyakaa’s Gilgamesh as a libretto, and wondered what sort of musical style might suit the story; I sketched the outline of my production concept, based on the physical textuality of the Gilgamesh tablets, and laid out my intention to create scenic, lighting, and costume design proposals for a hypothetical production of Gilgamesh the opera.

It is hard to conceive of an opera without its music, but I soon found that I wasn’t sure how to proceed with the musical component of the opera— even though this is precedent to the rest, really, as the dimension that turns the text into opera. While I have been a violinist since I was five, and have a few years’ experience studying, directing, designing, and producing operas (mostly with the Opera Theatre of Yale College, as well as the Yale Baroque Opera Project), I am not a composer. In my proposal, I wondered whether a survey of the extant musical Gilgameshes would give me a sense of the proper direction, but I found that the music was often strange and difficult, in other languages, and lacking any explication available in English to make it more accessible. The exception was Martinů’s oratorio, which I found to be evocative and rather musically consonant with my understanding of telling the Gilgamesh story, but even though I worked with the score and a translation of the German and Czech texts, I don’t know where that leaves me: still, if I were to commission a composer and point her toward that as inspiration, the new English-language Gilgamesh opera would be its own beast, as yet not extant, therefore impossible to work with. It is a somewhat dissatisfying component of this project to be at such an impasse in such an important element of the opera, but I suppose there’s something rather Sebaldesque about working extensively on the creation and development of an ever-silent opera, working within the mystery of what the opera would sound like.

The more immediately gratifying work of this project was the latter half of the proposal, which was to create a design portfolio for Gilgamesh, treating the opera as if it already existed. Although still completely contingent on the imaginary, designing a Gilgamesh production allowed my to pull the opera down out of the clouds and make it a visual and tactile thing. I think that my proposal for the scenic design might have been the most successful in its conception and execution. I described the original concept in my project proposal:

The set will scale those [ancient Sumerian Gilgamesh] tablets back up to expanses of earth-clay, so the stage surface is geographical but also textual. This concept integrates the story’s history and textuality into the set: this story only exists in the world, so many millennia later, because of the physical sturdiness of its medium. We were able to go and look at a thick chunk of this story in Sterling Memorial Library. The text is tiny and indecipherable to most, but it has persisted through an incomprehensible scope of history, humanity encoded. The medium of cuneiform on tablet is materially and formally evocative of the landscape in which the story unfolds.

Having a chance to look at one of the actual Gilgamesh tablets at the Babylonian Collection in Sterling really proved to be a grounding fact to my project, which was otherwise abstract throughout. As I worked through the adaptation of the text, and sourced musical inspiration and essentially abstracted this story through a whole range of media, I tried to keep in mind the simple and essentially physical grounding of the story as a thing that persists in its ancient form. My proposal for the scenic design was somewhat vague—make the stage a cuneiform tablet—but I was able to explore this further by actually constructing a model. I was not rigorous in drafting a design digitally and then constructing a model according to those specifications; rather, I bought the materials and discovered in three dimensions what the stage could look like. For the model of the stage space, I used a black box scale of Harkness Auditorium at the Yale School of Medicine. I had recently produced and stage managed the Opera Theatre of Yale College’s mainstage production, Leoš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, in that venue in February 2017, and the scenic designer, Joo Kim (a third-year MFA candidate at the Yale School of Drama), let me keep the model that she had constructed of the venue. Although Harkness Auditorium is not where I would choose to produce Gilgamesh the opera (I have produced or directed several shows there in the last few years, and it has its virtues but many limitations as a theatrical space), it was helpful to have a stage-shaped framework for making the model. I purchased terra cotta clay at Hull’s Art Supply, and I worked out the shape of the stage by just playing with the clay. I had done some rough sketching, but I found that it was much more satisfying to just see how I could deform it and smudge some clay-shaped terrain into the box of the model. I tore the clay apart and saw that it where it ripped open, the texture was actually lovely and interesting across the stage.

At this point, since about half of my stage was significantly higher—over an inch, or a few feet scaled to human size—I implemented some practical design and carved stairs into the downstage edge of the clay platform that I had created, turning the rough slope into a traversable stage path. To create some organic movement across the clay, I built the positive version of these etched-away steps upstage right, making an offstage escape. This defined one clear route across the stage: an actor could cross the blank stage space rightward, climb up to the higher clay playing surface at right, and then exit by winding still higher and further right. In the Harkness Auditorium model, these upper steps lead  awkwardly to a wall; in the proper venue, however, they would actually lead offstage to a constructed “escape” staircase, so that actors could also enter from there and appear high onstage. This would be an appropriate entrance for any of the immortal characters in Gilgamesh; I can especially picture Ninsun entering here, in divine light, and descending to her son, enacting the distance between her heavenly sphere and his mostly-mortal one. Lastly, I looked at the image of the Yale Gilgamesh tablet and other cuneiform online, and attempted to reproduce the patterns on the clay so that it evoked the tablet. In the carefully-built full-size version of this set, the actual text of the story could be inscribed on the clay by someone with more scenic talent—or more knowledge of ancient Sumerian—than I have.

In addition to the clay construction for the stage space, I also purchased some scale model evergreen trees at Hull’s, which looked plausibly enough like cedars. I imagine that these would be included just in the second act, when Gilgamesh and Enkidu venture to kill Humbaba in the forest of cedars. With this set model, I was able to just place the cedars behind the open-backed stage and they appeared somewhat ‘in the distance,’ but I don’t know how this would work in an actual theatre. I imagine that the first act could have a cyclorama backdrop that flew out for the second act, revealing the trees upstage of it, but that would require significant stage depth. Depending on the venue, it might be more practical to keep a cyc in place and rear-project tree-shadows on the backdrop. If I were using shadows instead of actual trees, it might be possible to create the effect of felling the cedars, which—with dramatic light effects—could be a compelling stage change at Enkidu’s death.

Lighting design is probably the most difficult to describe in the abstract, because it is both too specific and too impressional. I think it is the most fascinating design discipline: theatrical lighting is so specifically physical—your tools are precise instruments quantified by brightness, wavelength, and angle—and yet the art of it is the manipulation of light and shadow, a constant series of subtle and unperceived choices, playing with the misunderstandings of the eye. My lighting design concept was based on the reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) technique that the Yale Babylonian Collection has used to digitize some of its holdings, including one of the Sumerian Gilgamesh tablets. I requested access to these files, and Agnete Lassen, Assistant Curator of the Yale Babylonian Collection, was very helpful in getting them to me and recommending the appropriate application to view them on my computer. Unfortunately, it is hard to know how this concept would actually be achieved or realized with an actual system of stage lighting. It’s a sort of ‘special effect’ that would have to supplement a more standard design, because the most basic responsibility of a lighting designer is to just sufficiently illuminate the entirety of the drama. Lighting designers say, “if you can’t see them, you can’t hear them,” which is surprisingly true. Then once that basic visibility is achieved, next there is infinite subtlety in the effects of temperature, color, and mood that you can—and must—create and imply with the lighting. It is on top of all of this that I would like to achieve this shifting RTI-imagery technique. In moments of stillness onstage, we would remember the figures to be characters emerging from this cuneiform world they stand on as the shifting light would explore the semantic shape of them. I imagine it would have to involve a complex sequence cued out of many stage lights. There are incredibly versatile lighting fixtures that allow you to change color, iris, intensity, and even pan and tilt the beam around the stage with pre-programmed effects, but none of this would achieve the effect of moving the light source: while it could point from a fixed location to anywhere onstage, what I am looking for is the effect of point at the same place onstage from a variety of angles. I think the only solution is to have many fixtures that turn on and off in sequence, essentially adding a full system of lights that scale the RTI dome up to the size of the stage. Using these to “drag the light source” around, however, you are relying on the audience to create the “composite image” that the RTI software does, and you would need to test and calibrate the speed at which the light shifted from one side, across the width to the other, to determine what reads well. In the end, I don’t know if this effect would work, and it could be an expensive project in lighting equipment and installation labor if it didn’t. I would need to consult much more experienced lighting designers to get a sense of whether it was a feasible idea.

I originally intended to create a light plot and a more comprehensive plan for the lighting design of Gilgamesh, but I decided that it was not an efficient use of my creative energy. Given the conjectural state of the entire opera—the character of the music and the color and style of the costumes being probably the most important to a lighting designer—even thought the set is fairly designed, I think the work of creating a plot, selecting colors, and proposing potential designs would not add much to the proposed project. In any case, much of a lighting designer’s work does not—cannot—happen until immediately before a show opens, when, during tech week, she is able to create actual cues with the actors onstage, in costume, and the show is fully realized.

Professor Dimock recommended that I investigate Philip Glass’s Satyagraha for its cohesive use of the printing press, newspapers, and pamphlets as a design medium, evocative as my own use of the Gilgamesh tablet was in the scenic and lighting design for the opera. Although I was not able to find the entire production or the most relevant scene online, I acquainted myself with the style of composition and with Glass’s overall project in Satyagraha, which is a fascinating operatic rendering of the life of Mahatma Gandhi. The stage design did sound like a brilliant rendering of the musical and dramatic world with consistent and limited media. It is described in Daniel Mendelsohn’s review for the New York Review:

Most striking is the way in which, as an homage to Gandhi’s own reverence for humble people and humble objects, almost the entire visual world of their staging is organized around two homely objects: pieces of paper and sticks… nearly all of the significant onstage action took the form of either accretions or removals of material objects—things being built up, things being stripped down—which suggests a theatrical analogue to the way in which Glass’s music achieves its effects, too.

Much of this technique, however, was a reflection of the style of the music and the project of the piece, which was to understand the dramatic structure “as if the mantric repetitions of the music were a kind of meditative medium (as they can indeed be, in Eastern religions) for achieving a kind of spiritual heightening.” I think that Gilgamesh, although it has some of the mysticism of old gods, and the mist of being seen through the atmospheric perspective of so many millennia, is fundamentally a dramatic plot-driven storyline that self-motivates in a different way than Satyagraha. I did find the stage pictures to be an interesting point of reference, and Mendelsohn’s cogent writing about the opera was excellent to read. It is certainly true that composers like Philip Glass have expanded the range of subjects and modes available to opera as a genre, and that the opera Gilgamesh would be able to take advantage of—or, would be responsible for responding to—this modern musical storytelling.

I think that the greatest shortcoming of this project as it exists currently is that it doesn’t exist in any single cohesive form— that each ‘department,’ so to speak, is a point on the map, and each one is reflective of this large but diffuse imagination that I had of Gilgamesh the opera, but isn’t anything resembling a “final product.” Of course, this was inevitable; even when the opera already exists (as libretto and music, I mean), often the project of a production does not feel like a cohesive whole until tech week, when the cast and orchestra move into the theatre and finally begin to inhabit the world that the designers had conceived and the technicians had built. A possible solution to this issue, which is fundamentally one of scale, would perhaps have been to choose a single scene of the story and try to work that to completion, perhaps even to performance but still I would have encountered the difficulty of someone having to compose the music, and then I would have incurred significant cost in sets and costumes, and would have had to acquire a theatre, and performers— not impossible at Yale, but ultimately, I think, unproductively limiting. As it is, what I turn in as my “final project” is an attempt to digitize and anthologize several months of research and thought and creative energy; I hope that the coherence of the idea is apparent, and the relationship that each part bears to a future whole, that fully staged production of Gilgamesh, a new English-language opera that tells an old story.

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