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.

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.

All this is staged in a dreamlike, almost ritualistic way. The action is slow, deliberate, highlystylized. Some scenes are totally nonrealistic -- the beginning, for example, when Gandhi is flanked by the god Krishna and the warrior Arjuna, legendary characters from the Bhagavad-Gita. Other scenes are ceremonial, as when the Indians parade before a fire to burn their registration cards. The finale operates on many levels, with turn-of-the-century Indians confronting today's police as Gandhi and King look on.

Heightening the symbolic quality, witha rather heavy touch, each act is presided over by a silent figure on a high platform -- Tolstoy, the Indian poet TAgore, the civil-rights leader King -- whose spirit epitomizes the action below. Though realism does break into the action at times, it can seem like the most surreal stroke of all -- as when the stage is left entirely empty except for a giant printing press, its wheels spinning like an Indian evocation of cyclical birth and rebirth, its gears cranking in peaceful harmony with the propulsive music of the scene.

And it is the music that dominates every step of this grand work, notwithstanding the meaningful beauty of the setting and staging. As usual, Glass conjures up large chunks of sound, conventional in themselves, yet spun and respun in richly repetitive combinations that lend an unearthly new context to their essentially commonplace materials.

It's an awesome trick he pulls off here, weaving the simplest threads of melody and harmony into musical fabrics of enourmous strength, and accomplishing this without the boosted volume and forceful textures of his usual ensemble. He has mastered his style to the point where even the most radically "minimal" techniques take on rare beauty and unexpected resonance.

The production at Artpark was based on the world premiere staged last year by the Netherlands Opera. The sets and costumes were by Robert Israel, with staging by Hans Nieuwenhuis -- all these elements recalling the lavishness of "Einstein on the Beach" as designed by Robert Wilson, although "Satyagraha" (performed entirely behind a transparent scrim) is hazier and less sharply etched.

Musically, the folks at Artpark did themselves proud. Christopher Keene conducted the unconventional score with grace and assurance, working with members of the Buffalo Philharmonic and the superb Artpark Opera Chorus. In the leading role of Gandhi, tenor Douglas Perry outran every adjective of praise: Like the opera itself, his exquisite voice finely embodied the satyagrahan ideal of strength within gentleness and peace. And he looked the part, too.

The opening-night performance was not flawless. There was some roughness in the orchestra pit, and -- disaster! -- the printing press muffed its big solo, quite refusing to function. Fortunately, it had worked picturesquely (if reluctantly) during a dress rehearsal the day before, and presumably it learned its part in time for the second and third performances. Encountered in the lobby during the second intermission, composer Glass expressed his own strong satisfaction with the production, noting that the American musicians gave the music more oomph than their Dutch counterparts did last year. Judging from portions of the Dutch production that have been broadcast on radio, this assessment is accurate, and speaks well for the Artpark artists.

At its most dramatic moments, as when Gandhi is beaten by a mob in Act II, the opera is as tense as any verismom melodrama. Still, its primary value is one of transcendence -- of an ingenious musician, using methods he has virtually invented, transforming the stuff of life and history into high and unprecedented art.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.