History and meaning in a magnificent new opera about Gandhi; Satyagraha Opera by Philip Glass. Libretto by Constance DeJong. Conducted by Christopher Keene.
There is nothing ordinary about Philip Glass's magnificent new opera, "Satyagraha," which recently had its American premiere at Artpark in upstate New York and will be heard in November at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.Skip to next paragraph
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The subtitle, "M. K. Gandhi in South Africa 1893-1914," gives only a clue to the form and content of the work. While the action concerns a famous historical figure, it focuses on a little-known period of his career. Other aspects of the opera are equally unusual. The text is written and sung in Sanskrit. The words come from an ancient Indian epic, the Bhagavad-Gita. And the music is pure Glass, based on his own radical principles of gradual, deliberate, artfully repetitious musical development, coupled with a rock-steady pulse.
Even for Glass, however, this work is a departure. Unlike most of his earlier music, "Satyagraha" is not scored for an amplified ensemble of keyboards and woodwinds. Rather, the forces are a normal orchestra of medium size, minus brass and percussion, with one electric organ. While there is a busy chorus, recalling the avant-garde masterpiece "Einstein on the Beach," there are plenty of arias and duets and triots for conventional operatic voices.
In sum, Glass has wedded his unorthodox techniques to the normal sonorities of the opera house. The result is as fresh and original as any major work from his earlier career, far surpassing his austere last opera, "The Panther." For him, as for his "minimilist" contemporary Steve Reich, a step back into Western musical tradition can be the boldest leap forward of all. Throughout its three-hour length, "Satyagraha" is a work of utmost delicacy, combined with extraordinary musical richness and stirring dramatic power. At a time when notable new operas are regrettably scarce, opera companies should be scrambling to present it, with its present stging or in new renditions of their own. It's a deeply fascinating work that should not be allowed to fade from the stage because of fears over its innovative character.
Gandhi coined the term "satyagraha" during his time as a young lawyer in South Africa, when he encountered anti-Indian discrimination and vowed to struggle against it. The word "satya" means truth or love, while "agraha" means firmness. The concept of "satyagraha" replaced the idea of "passive resistance" and went a crucial step further in renouncing the notion of overcoming an opponent event peaceably -- in Gandhi's words it involves "not the remotest idea of injuring the opponent." Combined with the sheer number of Indian followers he had to work with, the strong but humble method of satyagraha became Gandhi's most celebrated weapon in his struggle for justice and freedom.
Glass's opera chronicles the satyagraha struggle in South Africa, condensing the action into a single day, and incorporating mythical as well as everyday elements. Set at dawn, the first scene places Gandhi between two armies -- the oppressors and their victims -- and presents his determination to wage the good fight. He and his followers then build the cooperative Tolstoy Farm, and take a satyagraha vow to resist their enemies. Since it is taken before God, this vow means far more than a merely political action.
Later, under a sotrmy afternoon sky, Gandhi is rescued from a mob by the wife of a local official, who unexpectedly supports his cause. Thus bolstered, he founds the radical newspaper Indian Opinion, and leads his followers in burning their hated apartheid-like "registratin cards." In the last act, under a starry sky, he guides his followers in resistance to a horde of contemporary policemen, finally standing between them and an image of Martin Luther King, who will continue the struggle in another place and time.