A philosopher/scholar named Jelaluddin Rumi has a chance encounter with an itinerant dervish named Shams of Tabriz. They form an abiding friendship, a profound bond that transcends their meeting in a thirteenth-century Turkish marketplace and extends to the world at the end of the millennium. How do we know this? Through the impassioned words of Rumi, who, deeply despondent after the death of his pal Shams four years later, was inspired to write some of the most rapturous poetry the world has ever read.
It has influenced modern artist Cy Twombly; poet/men's movement pioneer Robert Bly; trendy guru Deepak Chopra, who recently released a CD on which celebrities such as Goldie Hawn, Martin Sheen, and Madonna recite the poems; and Georgia poet and translator Coleman Barks, who since 1984 has been translating Rumi's works into several books, which have sold close to half a million copies (not bad for poetry).
Now Rumi's enduring verse inhabits nine of thirteen scenes in the 3-D opera Monsters of Grace, the latest collaboration by composer Philip Glass and theater innovator Robert Wilson (their first was 1976's five-hour epic Einstein on the Beach). No wailing fat ladies wielding staffs and wearing horned helmets here, though. This opera is actually a 68-minute song cycle, consisting of a contemplative three-dimensional, digitally animated film the audience watches through designer glasses while the ten-member Philip Glass Ensemble (three synthesizers, three wind instruments, and four vocalists) performs the score. According to Glass the music is based on the sounds of instruments from central Asia, so "there's a sound world that is referencing the world that Rumi lived in 900 years ago."
Known for his hypnotically repetitive style, Glass is the most prominent of current minimalist composers. Aside from writing his own compositions and music for large-scale operas, he has scored movies such as 1983's Koyaanisqatsi and most recently Martin Scorsese's Tibetan odyssey Kundun. He's also worked with a variety of mainstream musicians, among them David Byrne, Suzanne Vega, and Linda Ronstadt. Wilson enjoys major recognition in Europe for his rock musicals scored by the likes of Tom Waits and Lou Reed.
Five years in the making, Monsters debuted in early December 1998 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and is now on a 24-city tour. Although it lacks a definite plot or linear narrative structure, the opera (ominous title notwithstanding) is not a horror show but an exploration of "a much simpler idea of monsters, the monsters that human beings are in their normal manifestations, the monsters in us, not something outside of us," explains Glass. "Monsters and grace refers to the human and the divine, and the passage between the human world and the world of the divine that Rumi was so interested in."
With any luck the 3-D opera will absorb -- and somehow alter -- the audience as well. Given the marriage of high technology to an attention-span-friendly nearly hourlong work, the prospects are good. Says Glass about his most accessible composition to date: "In a way it's not different from any other work where we try to look at the ordinary world in an extraordinary way. Music or art or painting or poetry is a way of taking the ordinary world and seeing it almost through the eyes of a deity, through the eyes of a transformed being, which hopefully would be us. The difference between art and entertainment is that there's nothing wrong with entertainment, but it does very little to transform us. Art has the intention of being a passage and a doorway into an extraordinary world."