An Architect's Aria: Louis Kahn's Turbulent Life Becomes an Experimental Opera

An Architect's Aria: Louis Kahn's Turbulent Life Becomes an Experimental Opera
Architect Louis Kahn
(Photo by Arnold Newman; Courtesy Yale University Image Gallery)

In 1849, when German composer Richard Wagner dreamt up the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or the "total work of art," he probably could not foresee the peculiar convergence of architecture and opera that has culminated in "ARCHITECT: A Chamber Opera." Though nondescript by name, the theatrical production focuses on a single architect, Louis Kahn, and stages a complex and thorough contemplation of his life and work.

The project began with one composer's fascination with physical space: Jenny Kallick visited two Kahn buildings in New Haven — the Yale Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art — and was roused by the acoustic value of the architecture. Soon after, she and a student began recording the tonalities of various Kahn buildings, including the Phillips Exeter Academy Library in New Hampshire and the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. Kallick's field recordings eventually led to several sets of lyrics incorporating snippets of Kahn's lectures, and in 2005, Kallick approached fellow composer Lewis Spratlan with preliminary ideas for an opera about the American architect.

In Kallick's opera, interlocking melodies attempt to mimic the brickwork of Kahn's buildings, and in one particular piece, the oboe becomes the musical surrogate for Kahn's distinctive, almost shrill voice. A humorous "concrete duet" between Kahn and his favored structural engineer August Komendant tells the story of a dreamer paired with a pragmatist, and Kahn's turbulent private life comes to the fore when a character known simply as "Woman," an amalgam of Kahn's numerous flawed personal relationships, enters the scene.

The opera ends with a dream sequence referencing Kahn's La Jolla, California Salk Institute. Though the Institute's humbling concrete buildings and poetic central stream of water could undoubtedly inspire a grandiose set design, Kallick and Spratlan have other ideas for the look and feel of their opera: "Right from the beginning, we had this idea of [the opera] being very portable," Spratlan explained in an interview with composer Federick Peters. In limiting the production to what Spratlan calls a "two-station-wagon opera," Kallick and Spratlan hope to have the piece performed in various Kahn buildings. In the eyes of the two composers, the architect has already designed the perfect venues for his own opera.

Though "ARCHITECT: A Chamber Opera" has yet to be performed live, a film version debuted earlier this year at the Chicago Architecture and Design Film Festival. The film will be screened again at the New York City Architecture and Design Film Festival in mid-October, and fundraising and planning has begun for live performances in two Kahn buildings.