The Temple of Dendur is one of the most popular sites at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a magnet for sketch artists and tourists snapping selfies. Now, it is inspiring a musical theater piece that will get its premiere Friday around the ancient Egyptian temple itself.
The Temple of Dendur has had a wild ride. The stone structure was built as a shrine to Isis around 15 B.C. It was defaced by European travelers, plucked from the banks of the Nile in the 1960s, and finally dropped into the Met in 1978. That turbulent history is the inspiration for I Was Here I Was I, a piece written for the 20-piece band Alarm Will Sound, plus five singers.
At a recent rehearsal at the Met, the work's composer, Kate Soper, described her own character, the English writer Amelia Edwards.
"She is a Victorian-era British woman in Egypt exploring and taking notes and sketching," said Soper. "She's not quite a tourist but sort of a scholar of her own time. She stays in her own period and becomes a narrator figure or an emcee figure for the whole opera."
The piece weaves together the story of Edwards with other other tales about Dendur's history. Nigel Maister, the librettist and director, says he wants to explore how people from different eras relate to the temple – including the graffiti that visitors left on its walls.
"One of the things that was so interesting in Egypt was the fact that so many of the temples and the reliefs had been chipped away and obliterated by succeeding generations and succeeding cultures – either appropriating them for their own use or taking away the pagan symbols or something like that.
"The thought is, why do people do that? And why do you come to the Met and take a selfie in front of the Temple of Dendur? What are we trying to commemorate? What are we trying to leave there? How does memory work? What do you take away?"
Soper's music is known for its extravagant, sometimes jarring mix of colors and styles. But today her thoughts are mostly on logistics, like where to put the audience amid the temple, moving performers and giant reflecting pool.
"It's not so much about directing the audience to observe the temple as a visual object as it's to bring to life certain facts about this collection of stones that I'm looking at right now," she said. "It really was a building with a purpose."
Bonus audio: Diana Craig Patch, curator in charge of Egyptian Art at the Met Museum on Dendur's unique qualities:
Weigh in: Art has inspired music before, from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition to Hindemith's Mathis der Maler. What piece of art do you feel would inspire great music?