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Creative force (watch VIDEO)

Philip Glass is arguably the most prolific and influential American composer of the last 50 years. When he decided to remount his evocative, groundbreaking opera “Einstein on the Beach” for a preview audience before the production tours internationally, he could have chosen any venue in the world. But he turned to the University of Michigan, and the University Musical Society.

Glass isn’t the first to see the promise of bringing creative work to U-M and taking advantage to state-of-the-art performing venues, and a highly engaged community of students, artists and scholars.

Two years ago, the world-renown Royal Shakespeare Company crossed the Atlantic to take up residency at U-M to work through and present an on-script reading of “Cardenio,” a restored 17th-century English play which some scholars contend is the lost work of William Shakespeare.  And a year before RSC came to Ann Arbor, one of American opera’s legendary performers, Jessye Norman, and her collaborator, Laura Karpman, worked with students of U-M’s School of Music, Theatre and Dance to flesh out the music and melodies of their opera, “Ask Your Mama,” based on Langston Hughes’ cycle poem of the same name.

“It is a great opportunity to be working in a community that is not only receptive to this information, but collaborators in the discussion,” said Glass, whose defining work, “Einstein on the Beach,” will be performed Jan. 20-22 at the Power Center for Performing Arts. The groundbreaking collaboration with Robert Wilson is an engaging production of opera, dance, lighting design and spoken word that reflects the post-modern aesthetic perhaps as much as other major performance work created post 1970s.

“It was very important to us to launch (“Einstein on the Beach”) in a way that would deeply impact the next generation of artists and help us take our creative process for this piece into the 21st century,” said Glass. “The University of Michigan has played a vital role in making this happen.”

During the next weeks, Glass and Wilson will refine their landmark production, lending further credence to U-M’s emerging role as a preeminent international cultural incubator and venue to develop creative works. Hosting the famous work spotlights U-M’s commitment to the arts and creativity as integral to the learning experience, said Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan.

“Creating and conveying the arts to inspire, captivate and educate is part of our mission,” she said. “Visits by Philip Glass, Royal Shakespeare Company and Jessye Norman offer compelling proof of U-M’s significance in cultivating and promoting new works of art.”

From early January through the preview performance of “Einstein on the Beach,” Glass and  Wilson will participate in discussions with the public, students and scholars about the methods and direction of the newly mounted work along with what Glass calls “the intersection of art and science” at one of the world’s preeminent research institutions.

“The company will be working with students studying musicology, performance, and stage design to share lessons that we have learned through our journey with ‘Einstein on the Beach,’” said Glass. “This is not only an opportunity for us to incubate our own new ideas for the production, it will allow for students and community members to apply this shared knowledge to their own art-making.”

PHOTOS: Top — Philip Glass; middle — Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2006 performance of “The Tempest;” and, bottom — Jessye Norman addresses graduates at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance.