“Here’s a strange thing: Opera is very popular right now,” the composer Philip Glass said, speaking by telephone from Washington, D.C., where his 2007 opera “Appomattox” was being prepared for a new production at the Kennedy Center. But Glass, creator of 26 operas of various shapes and sizes, from the epochal 1976 landmark “Einstein on the Beach” to his 2014 adaptation of Kafka’s “The Trial,” wasn’t talking about audience appeal, not really.
“When I was writing operas in the ’80s, I daresay, I think I was the only person I knew writing operas,” he said. “Now, I don’t know any composer who isn’t writing an opera. And they’re being produced very widely — not always at the Met or the big houses, but we’ve learned to work in smaller forms or adaptable forms.”
Illustrating Glass’s point, this week his chamber opera “In the Penal Colony” — another Kafka adaptation, composed in 2000 for A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle — is being staged by Boston Lyric Opera. Presented as part of the company’s outlier Opera Annex series, which specializes in mounting little-known modern works in evocative settings, “In the Penal Colony” will be presented at the Cyclorama, a grandiose 19th-century South End edifice.
In Rudolph Wurlitzer’s libretto, based on a Kafka story written in 1914 and published in 1919, a prison commander describes to a visitor a system of justice meted out through a torture device, and then resorts to drastic measures when opinion turns against his trusted methods.
“When I wrote it, I thought, it’ll get done once and then no one will ever do it again,” Glass said. “Why would you want to watch a suicide? Basically that’s what you’re doing. And it turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong. I would say it’s the most performed opera that I’ve written.”
Partly that’s a matter of the work’s economy and portability, he acknowledged, while also noting that Kafka retains a timeless fascination for many readers. “I came to know that he himself considered his works very funny,” Glass said. “He famously would read these plays or stories to his friends, and they would laugh.” Accordingly, last year Glass had Music Theatre Wales, which previously had staged and recorded “In the Penal Colony,” approach “The Trial” as black comedy.
“Maybe that wouldn’t be so true of ‘Penal Colony,’ where you only really have two people,” he said. Still, he points out a passage in which the commander describes a bed missing a leather strap. “And he says, ‘In the old days, I could get a leather strap whenever I needed it. Today they’re trying to shut us down, I’m losing all the parts, I don’t really have everything I need anymore.’ He goes into that kind of detail, and you start to think, maybe this is written as black humor.”
Glass’s compact ensemble — two singers (here, tenor Neal Ferreira and baritone David McFerrin), a dancer (Yury Yanowsky), a conductor (Ryan Turner), and a string quintet — suits the story’s oppressive intimacy. Several reviewers have heard in Glass’s signature repetitive figurations a representation of stasis and entrapment. But Esther Nelson, BLO’s general and artistic director, related a different epiphany she’d had recently about the music.
“Kafka always has these narrators, and they’re always kind of detached, and they comment, in an eerie way, almost, about the story,” Nelson said by phone from Los Angeles. “If it’s well done, a reading of a Kafka novel is extremely upsetting and unsettling. We don’t have that in the opera, because Glass didn’t put in the narrator.”
Listening in rehearsal, Nelson suddenly realized that Glass’s music serves the narrator’s role. “It gives the emotion, it gets under your skin, but at the same time, it is kind of detached,” she said. “I’m not sure that any other composer could have come as close to the story as Philip Glass.”
Perhaps paradoxically, given its vast size, the Cyclorama has proved an inspiring setting for the director R.B. Schlather, a dynamic young artist best known for his site-specific stagings of Handel operas in a downtown New York City art gallery.
Having joined BLO’s Emerging Artist roster during the 2014-15 season, Schlather assisted director David Schweizer in the company’s rapturous Opera Annex staging of Frank Martin’s “The Love Potion.” For “Penal Colony,” Schlather recalled Glass’s own early performance experiences in downtown New York galleries, and drew inspiration from the composer’s visual-art peers.
“I was thinking about Glass’s Minimalist contemporaries, people like Richard Serra and Dan Flavin, and about how their work is not just about the material object, but about how your experience of the space changes when you encounter that material in the space,” Schlather said. For the singers, he explained, he encouraged large gestures that would carry across a distance.
A similar simplicity applied to the set. “We took out a chunk of the floor and we lofted it, and it leaves behind it a big rectangular hole in the floor, which you could read as a kind of grave next to the gallows,” he said. “But I also like to think of it as: The lid has been removed from Pandora’s Box, and all of this terrifying, horrible energy is escaping out of it and causing all this chaos.”
Moreover, the Cyclorama’s fantastical dimensions and details suited the story’s milieu in unanticipated ways. “It’s almost like when you’re sitting there, listening to the performer describe this terrifying machine, you sort of look around you, and the elements of the architecture of the space eerily suggest a lot of the stuff that’s talked about in the show,” Schlather said. “That’s an experience that you wouldn’t have in another space, per se. It’s unique to the Cyclorama.”
The results promise to be memorable, if not altogether comfortable. “There’s a scene in there that’s highly disturbing, that sheds light on an aspect of human nature that’s not relegated to history,” Nelson said. “It’s a fundamental ethical and moral question as to how can normal people, who consider themselves upstanding citizens and morally aware, become convinced that something morally completely offensive is justified. When do we turn a blind eye and say, it’s really not my problem, as individuals or as nations? The attraction of this piece is that it confronts us with a reality that I think we need to be confronted with. And art does that.”
PHILIP GLASS: In the Penal Colony
Presented by Boston Lyric Opera. AtThe Cyclorama at Boston Center for the Arts on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Nov. 15. Tickets: $50. 617-542-6772, www.blo.orgSteve Smith can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nightafternight.