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New opera by renowned composer Philip Glass based on Lax poetry collection ‘Circus Days and Nights’

May 19, 2021 |

Robert Lax began writing ‘Circus’ masterwork at St. Bonaventure

Who would have thought that the latest work by the world renowned composer Philip Glass would have had its origins in the basement of the library of St. Bonaventure University in the 1950s.

Circus Days and Nights poster @copyright Malmö OperaWriter Robert Lax had just returned from traveling with the Cristiani Family Circus through Western Canada. Upon returning to a family home in the small town of Olean, he sought out a quiet place to work daily on transforming his experiences into a poetic vision of the circus as a microcosm of the world and a hymn to its creation.

Today that poetic vision is coming to life in a fusion of circus and opera. “Circus Days and Nights,” a new opera by Glass, is based on Lax’s collection of poems by the same name. The three-act circus opera is being co-produced by Swedish contemporary circus company Cirkus Cirkör and Malmö Opera, and will premiere live on May 29.

Paul Spaeth, curator of the Lax Archives and former director of Friedsam Memorial Library at St. Bonaventure, said Lax’s interest in the circus stemmed from his childhood when his dad would take him to watch the circus train arrive in Olean and subsequent circus performances.

St. Bonaventure houses the largest archival collection of work by Lax, whose styles were simplicity of look and content, along with a deep spirituality mixed with humor. Lax was born and died in Olean (1915-2000), though he traveled extensively and for more than three decades lived on the Greek islands of Kalymnos and Patmos.

Lax attended Columbia University where he befriended fellow student Thomas Merton, who would go on to a celebrated life as a theologian, writer and social activist. The two were devoted friends throughout their lives.

After graduating from Columbia, Lax worked in a variety of jobs, as a tutor, writing advertising copy, teaching college English, and as an editor and writer. The most important of his early publications was “Circus of the Sun” (1959), a cycle of poems about Lax’s travels with the Cristiani Family Circus in 1949.

The poetry collection “Circus Days and Nights” was published in 2000 and draws readers into Lax’s fascination with acrobats and the circus lifestyle. In his introduction of the book, Spaeth writes, “Robert Lax never lost that sense of wonder whenever he was around a circus. He went to see these wandering caravans of performers as often as he could, long after he had ceased being a child.”  

Glass is one of the most influential composers in contemporary music. He has written operas, symphonies and chamber music as well as music for film, theater and television. He has had rights to the Lax poem for about 10 years.

Tilde Björfors, one of the founders of Cirkus Cirkör, will direct the production. In interviews about the upcoming show, she said 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.

“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,” Björfors said.

The cast will include renowned Swedish soprano Elin Rombo as well as seven professional circus artists. “Circus Days and Nights” will be livestreamed May 29 through June 13 from Malmö Opera’s main stage. The opera is sung in English with Swedish subtitles. Tickets are about $11 (U.S.) and are available from Malmö’s website, www.malmoopera.se.

After the opening, “Circus Days and Nights” will tour Asia, the United States, and Europe.

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About the University: The nation’s first Franciscan university, St. Bonaventure University is a community committed to transforming the lives of our students inside and outside the classroom, inspiring in them a lifelong commitment to service and citizenship. In 2020, St. Bonaventure was named the #2 regional university value in New York and #3 in the North by U.S. News and World Report.