Each new chapter of American history has a way of casting what came before it in a different light. So when the composer Philip Glass and the playwright Christopher Hampton decided to revive “Appomattox,” the opera about the Civil War that they wrote a decade ago, they found that the changing civil rights landscape cried out for a rewrite. “We were writing it in 2005 and 6,” Mr. Glass said in an interview. “But it never occurred to me that the Supreme Court would gut the Voting Rights Act.” Since the first version of “Appomattox” had its premiere in 2007 at the San Francisco Opera, many states have passed laws making it harder to vote, and, in 2013, the Supreme Court effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. So Mr. Glass and Mr. Hampton significantly revised the opera and made voting rights a central theme. When the reimagined work has its premiere at the Kennedy Center here on Saturday, presented by the Washington National Opera, audiences will see how Mr. Glass, perhaps the most prominent American composer of his generation, weighs in on a pressing issue in the nation’s capital — where many of the scenes he is depicting took place and where, if history is any guide, there are likely to be policy makers and a Supreme Court justice or two in the audience.
“We are now in very interesting territory, where the artists are trying to catch up,” Mr. Glass, 78, said at the Kennedy Center before a recent rehearsal. “It’s not art imitating life; it’s art trying to catch up with life. Because life is changing in front of us.”
The rethought opera harks back to the days before texts were considered sacrosanct, when composers like Handel, Verdi and Puccini continued to tinker with and transform their finished works over the years. The new “Appomattox,” even though its subject is history, can feel as timely as a Twitter feed, with its explorations of race, police violence, civil rights and voting rights. And it is joining a long operatic tradition of using historical subjects to resonate with contemporary issues — from the way Verdi’s “Va Pensiero” chorus in the biblical epic “Nabucco” came to be heard as an Italian nationalist anthem to how his “Don Carlo” used Spanish history to weigh in on realpolitik and the Roman Catholic Church.