Philip Glass Circus Opera Based on Robert Lax’s Poems Will Premiere as Scheduled on May 29, 2021

Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on the schedules of virtually all arts organizations. Malmö Opera, where composer Philip Glass’s circus opera based on Robert Lax’s poems is set to debut, is no exception. The opera house has been dark since December. Happily, though, the premiere of “Circus Days and Nights” will go on as scheduled on May 29, 2021.

Here’s what Henrik Sundin, marketing manager for co-producer Cirkus Cirkör, just wrote to me about the potential audience for the premiere: “At the moment, the restrictions in Sweden is 8 persons. But it’s reviewed every month so we don’t know. Maybe it will be a digital premiere. Maybe we will have 8, 50 or 300 in the audience.

Because of the uncertainty, ticket sales have been suspended and the dates for the opera’s world tour are yet to be set. I’ll pass on further information when I have it.

You’l find more information on the opera, including costume sketches and set models here.

The images above are of the cover and information page from the original hardcover edition of Lax’s The Circus of the Sun (only 500 copies printed).

There Is No Right Way of Singing…or Dancing…or Living

(Image from 123freevectors.com)

In these fractious times, when competing visions of who we are (or should be) seem to separate us more and more, let me offer this short excerpt from Pure Act about a realization Lax came to in the fall of 1973, one of the most significant of his life (Lipsi is a small island near where he lived his later years on Patmos):

As he lingered on Lipsi that fall, he began to see that his vision hadn’t been capacious enough. He had been looking at parts rather than the whole, searching for models rather than an understanding of the greater scheme of things. The oneness of humanity–of all of life–wasn’t something to be sought, he realized, but something to be recognized and embraced. The life flowing in his veins had been flowing in veins since the beginning of time or longer. The enduring nature of life was the important thing to understand:

the continuity of life is
its meaning: it begins from
eternity & flows to eternity

there is no right way of
singing a given song: but
all ways are more or less
right

the variations of tone we
bring to our roles give life
its color: whether we will (to)
or not, we add variations

there is no one character in
whom the Lord would dwell &
not in others

he who dances in the middle
of the room, dances for me;
he who sits in the corner
watching, watches for me

…it is not that our lives
should so radically change,
but rather our understanding
of them


–pp. 320-321, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax


“A Reaching Beyond”: Robert Lax Explains His Color Poems

(image from artistsbooksandmultiples.blogspot.com)
the red blue color
poems in colored
crayon

(do a lot of
things at
once)

they're poems
but look like
paintings

yet (being
neither poems
nor paintings)

are something
beyond both

---

and are meant to
be
(that) thing
beyond both
that includes
both

---

not a matter
of mélange
des genres

a reaching
beyond known
genres

for a new one

a direction of
the discovery
of new ones

(from thesis
antithesis
to synthesis)

a reaching beyond
what is
to what
(may become)

---

is there a sense
in which all that
may ever become

already is?

yes, is
in potentia

–pp. 350-351, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax

Remembering Robert Lax on the 20th Anniversary of His Death

Twenty years ago on this day (the feast day of St. John in the Orthodox calendar), I was getting ready to teach an evening class when I received word that my dear friend and mentor Bob Lax had died. I turned out my office light and let the tears flow–tears of gratitude as much as of grief, for I had been blessed with 15 years of close friendship with this warm, funny, smart, creative, and humanely spiritual man.

Of all the things I learned from Lax, perhaps the most important was to find and follow my own path in life. I suppose that is why I ended my biography of him, Pure Act, with these words:

Several people who knew Lax said he found what [his friend Thomas] Merton was looking for: a kind of solitude, simplicity, and peace that passes human understanding. Some have even said he was the one who became a saint. None of this would have meant much to him except perhaps as inspiration to others. What he--and Merton--found, he thought, was his own way of walking. His own way of singing the song. He own way of being pure act. For, as he once wrote,

there are not many songs
there is one song

the animals lope to it
the fish swim to it
the sun circles to it
the stars rise
the snow falls
the grass grows

there is no end to the song and no beginning
the singer may die
but the song is forever

truth is the name of the song
and the song is truth.

May the song Lax sang resound in all of us who loved him or love his work and love the truth he sang about. And may we find our own new ways to sing it too.

Eyes of Innocence

      “Whatever his failures,” Thomas Merton writes in his essay “Message to Poets,” “the poet is not a cunning man. His art depends on an ingrained innocence which he would lose in business, in politics, or in too organized a form of academic life. The hope that rests on calculation has lost its innocence.”
     I don’t know that Merton was thinking of Lax when he wrote these words, but he certainly might have been. It was Lax who encouraged him to try writing poetry himself, and one of the things he admired most in Lax was his enduring innocence.
      As for Lax, when he worked for the New Yorker as a young man, he seemed to know innately that its combination of cleverness, calculation, and commerce was killing his poetic soul. Once he left that position, he mostly stayed far away from business and politics—and even during his brief teaching gigs, no one would call his approach “organized.”
     I wish I could reprint Merton’s entire essay here because, though it was written in 1964, it speaks more clearly about the poet’s role at this moment in history than anything else I’ve read. And by “poet” I mean any person who seeks to speak of life as he or she truly sees it. I think that’s what Merton meant by the word too.  “Poetry,” he writes, “is the flowering of ordinary possibilities. It is the fruit of ordinary and natural choice. This is its innocence and its dignity.”
     Almost every poem Lax wrote focused on the “flowering of ordinary possibilities.” This is especially true of his later, more minimalist works. It was the seemingly ordinary that fascinated him, the way it became extraordinary when studied intently. And he often said that the breaks in his poems came to him naturally. He would establish a rhythm and break from it where a break felt right.
     Two of the most important traits any artist needs are the ability to see the world and himself clearly and honestly, and the ability to express what he sees precisely, neither muddying it nor gilding it. As Merton asserts, these are traits of the innocent. One of the things Lax sought to do in his 20s and 30s was unlearn the things he had learned in school that weren’t true for him, so he could see the things that were true more clearly.
     Too few of us make the effort or take the time to do what Lax sought to do. Instead of doing whatever is required, taking whatever time is needed, to know and express our own thoughts, our own true beliefs, we accept the slogans and attitudes of one group or another. Sometimes consciously, sometimes passively. As a result, we can never see the world through innocent eyes—the eyes that see love rather than hate, solidarity rather than division, open-minded hope rather than the calculations that might lead to some imagined “victory.”
     “Collective life is often organized on the basis of cunning, doubt, and guilt,” Merton writes. “True solidarity is destroyed by the political art of pitting one man against another and the commercial art of estimating all men at a price. On these illusory measurements men build a world of arbitrary values without life and meaning, full of sterile agitation.”
     The results of this arbitrariness, Merton says, are despair and alienation. “In such a situation,” he writes, “there is no joy, only rage.”
     Lax believed deeply that all of us could see clearly and know what to do in any moment if we put ourselves in a place where grace could flow to us and through us. To him, that meant slowing down and waiting until he knew what he should do. It also meant quieting his mind and his heart, especially when everything around him was unquiet. He believed in a unifying spirit that disappeared from our sight only when we drifted away from it.
     There is no magic in the images and words poets see and use, Merton tells us. “It is the businessman, the propagandist, the politician, not the poet, who believes in ‘the magic of words,’” he writes. “For the poet there is precisely no magic. There is only life in all its unpredictability and all its freedom.”
     Lax was, above all, a poet of life as it truly is. As he truly saw it, through innocent eyes. He wrote again and again (as the title of one of his books suggests) of the “thing that is.” The life that is—not as we’d like it to be or might change it to be, but as we experience it right now.
     “When the poet puts his foot in that ever-moving river,” Merton writes, “poetry itself is born out of the flashing water. In that unique instant, the truth is manifest to all who are able to receive it.”
     “Let us obey life,” he says, “and the Spirit of Life that calls us to be poets, and we shall harvest many new fruits for which the world hungers—fruits of hope that have never been seen before. With these fruits we shall calm the resentments and the rage of man.”

© Michael N. McGregor

(This post by Lax biographer Michael N. McGregor originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of The Robert Lax Newsletter. To receive this bimonthly emailing, sign up on the robertlax.com homepage.)

A Lax Retrospective in Germany

(Images courtesy of Jörg Kowalski)

Shortly after Germany ended its coronavirus lockdown in May, the Kunstverein Röderhof Gallery near the small town of Halberstadt opened an exhibit called “Robert Lax Remembered. The show ran through the end of July. Here are some pictures of it.

Lax admirer Jörg Kowalski and painter Olaf Wegewitz designed the exhibit, which included “text flags” that were three meters long, photos by Lax and of Patmos, objects from Kowalski’s Lax collection, and materials from the Mailart project “PATMOS–PROJEKT: Hommage á Robert Lax.”


IL CIRCO DEL SOLE: The First Italian Version of Robert Lax’s THE CIRCUS OF THE SUN

Lax’s majestic poetry cycle The Circus of the Sun is now available in Italian for the first time. This finely crafted and illustrated book is published by Il Ponte del Sale, a cultural association for both Italian and international poetry.

Il Circo del Sole, with text in both English and Italian, was edited by Giampaolo De Pietro and Graziano Krätli (with translations by Krätli himself and Renata Morresi, an afterword by Andrea Raos, and drawings by Francesco Balsamo. You can see one of Balsamo’s illustrations here.) The book is 126 pp. and costs 20 euros + shipping.

For ordering information, write to: ilpontedelsale@libero.it.

For a sample of the book’s text in both English and Italian, click here.

It’s Official! Philip Glass Circus Opera Based On Robert Lax’s Poems to Premiere May 29, 2021!

Click on the image above to watch a five-minute video introduction to the show.

I announced this several months ago but now it’s official: “Circus Days and Nights,” the new circus opera by Philip Glass, based on poems by Robert Lax (with libretto by David Henry Hwang and Tilde Björfors), will have its world premiere at Sweden’s Malmö Opera on May 29, 2021.

Cirkus Days and Nights is a co-production between Cirkus Cirkör and Malmö Opera. After its premiere at Malmö Opera, Cirkus Cirkör, Scandinavia’s leading contemporary circus company, will take it on tour.

Here’s a description from the press release sent out this week:

“An entirely new work meets an entirely new form: Circus Days and Nights is a circus opera in three acts, written by legendary composer Philip Glass. Its inspiration is Robert Lax’s masterwork Circus Days and Nights, a collection of poems that draws us into the poet’s fascination with acrobats and the circus lifestyle and takes us on the road with him when he “runs away” and joins a circus in 1940s America. For Lax, the circus becomes a metaphor for life itself – the cycle of life and death –and for human yearning and striving. Circus Days and Nights will be a boundary-crossing performance that brings the circus ring into the opera house.”

You can read the full press release here and see photographs of Cirkus Cirkör shows here.

Philip Glass and Tilde Björfors. Photo: Mats Bäcker

Some quotes from those who created the opera:

”I have had the rights to the poem for about ten years, but I couldn’t write the piece because I hadn’t found my circus. When I saw Tilde’s staging of ‘Satyagraha’ it struck me: Here’s my circus.”
–Philip Glass

In Robert Lax’s poem and vision of the circus as a metaphor for life, I discovered a soulmate and ever since, Circus Days and Nights has had a permanent place on my nightstand. In Philip Glass’s music, I heard the ultimate circus music, music that commingles with the circus disciplines. Having the opportunity to bring together these two sources of inspiration is dizzying and fills me with a sense of humility in the face of life’s breathtaking leaps of faith.”
–Tilde Björfors

“I read the poems and I was really touched by their beauty, their simplicity in a sense, and yet their profundity. The way Lax envisions Circus as an act of creation and the cycle of putting up a show and taking it down is the cycle of life itself.”
–David Henry Hwang

Coming in June: Online Course on “Robert Lax: Mystic Poet”

The course is part of being offered by the Franciscan Institute at St. Bonaventure University. Below are details and a short bio for the instructor:

Course Title: Robert Lax: Mystic Poet
Dates & Times: June 8-12 | 9 a.m.-noon | Monday through Friday
Presenter: Dr. Joshua C. Benson

This course will explore the life and mysticism of Robert Lax. Utilizing new biographical information and new sources from the Lax Archive at St. Bonaventure University’s Friedsam Library, the course will introduce Lax’s life, including his connection with St. Bonaventure and the Franciscan Institute, explore his thoughts on the virtue of Charity, and study his introspective poetic mysticism.

Dr. Joshua C. Benson is chair of the Department of Theology and Franciscan Studies at St. Bonaventure University. His prior research includes studies of St. Bonaventure and other Franciscans. His most recent research has focused on unpublished materials in the Robert Lax archive, some of which appeared in the recent publication of Lax’s “21 Pages and Psalm” by the Franciscan Institute.

COST: $300
Registration Deadline: May 15


Click to register

Choral Work Based on Robert Lax Writings Misses Out on Grammy But Inspires Italian Magazine Spread

I mentioned in a previous post that The Crossing’s recording of Kile Smith’s “The Arc in the Sky,” a choral composition based on Lax’s poems and other writings, was up for a Grammy this year. Unfortunately, it didn’t win. But the Italian online magazine Vengodalmare has a piece on Lax inspired by Smith’s composition. The piece is in Italian, but it includes several Lax poems in English: “Jerusalem” and “so bird, so spirit…” along with selections from “sea & sky.”

If you scroll down below the “sea & sky” excerpt, you’ll find a short video of a Los Angeles group performing part of Smith’s work.