Yes Yes, but would Gandhi be amused.
Satyagraha is a 1980 Phillip Glass opera in three acts commissioned by the city of Rotterdam. The current production is in limited release(seven performances premiering Apr 11, 2008) at the Metropolitan opera house(Lincoln center, New York), is a co-production with the English national opera and stars tenor Richard Croft and the Sky puppetry of the Skills Ensemble.
Satyagraha s part of a trilogy of Phillip glass operas that include Aknathan (about the Egyptian pharoah that invented monotheism), Einstein on the beach, about the scientist , and this the more elaborate work featuring Gandhi , (and Tagore Martin Luther king Junior and Tolstoy.). Of all the glass work I have heard, I think it is a shame Glass is grouped together with John cage as an experimental composer. His works all give me the impression that, not only was Glass ahead of his time in inventing the minimalist form that worked inside the classical structure, he also adequately reflected the musical theories of introspection that has served varied masters –from propaganda (repetition is the most effective form of propaganda) to transplanted gamaka traditions in western classical music(phillip glass worked with many Indian musicians during his later career) To the avant garde. Even in Satyagraha, you hear the alternating sa ma sa ma sa ma sa ma , sa ma pa sa ma pa sa ma pa , sa ri ga ma ni sa sa ri ga ma ni sa sa ri ga ma n sa, and then back to sa ma sa ma sa ma….ad nauseum between oratorios and arias (sung in sanskrit ).
The opera is in three parts, the bang(all the dramatic action and choruses) coming in the first , with a reenactment of the protest that led to the formation of concepts of civil disobedience in South Africa, with Tolstoy being the principal inspiration. The Second touches upon Gandhi’s Journalism and the Indian voice with Tagore as it’s center. The final act has Martin Luther King Jr talking up a storm , inspired by Gandhi.
The opera portrays Gandhi’s reaction first in righteous anger, and then as framed by his call to the duty of his scriptures. The framing is achieved by the tenor and the chorus singing the Sanskrit words of the Bhagavad Gita , an BC first millennium text which was an acknowledged inspiration of Gandhi, verses have been selectively chosen to make a dialectic argument to support the satyagraha(nonviolent protest)’s heroism. At the time of crisis the good must act. To act is honorable. The action must be simple and to the point. No act is too humble for the satyagrahi. The action must be bereft of desire and need for the resul of such action. It should result from righteousness, and not from greed or selfishness. All pain and pleasure must be secondary to the correctness of the action and the action must be independent of the prospective reward or pain while acting. Gandhi also quotes God as saying that action should be bereft of hatred towards anyone.
The conceits of the opera are it’s excellent solo passages (oratorios and arias) choruses and the Sky and paper Mache puppetry(think hong kong dragons except with newsprint and with paper Mache. ) The first act features a holy war between the choruses half of them dressed in white people’s clothing ,and half in Indian attire In the background gigantic paper Mache puppets fight a duel. As Gandhi walks in stop motion(the entire opera is choreographed in stop motion) to confront the Afrikaners, Paper Mache cutouts of deamons peer from out of 1900’s skylines.
Paper and the printed word are also recurring motifs in the opera. The Skills Ensemble holds up newsprint n which words are projected periodically. As Gandhi starts his Indian voice newspaper, There is a sea o newsprint first and then a maelstrom of newprint and then as Gandhi walks into a newsprint cave, a rain of newsprint.
The set is a rusting corrugated tin shed. Also in the set are a group dressed as the universal worker. This is not the soviet worker but the Industrial revolution “black” irishman.It ‘s every Indian that polished the shoes of an Afrikaner. It’s every recession hit American dirty face and overall and hat.. As the floor lies cluttered with newsprint , generated by Gandhi’s “Indian Voice” , the ubiquitous worker rats fan out and clear Gandhi’s Garbage. Those that protest are different than those that work. The worker puts up barriers and cleans up after. The protestor protests. One of th workers , is cleaned up and dressed in a suit , and he becomes Martin Luther King Jr (did he look like barrack o obama?) who climbs the bully pulpit and talks ua storm , as Gandhi is framed against the column.
In the end the opera is a grueling three hour experiment in minimal music , Stop motion choreography and Glass’ single mindedness in describing a religious dogmatic response to godlessness and crass wish fulfilling materialism , and unlike the usual new york narrative, the godly is the righteous and it’s heroic….and it’s in Sanskrit
Gandhi would be amused.
Satyagraha :Opera in Three Acts
Music by Philip Glass
Text in Sanskrit by the composer and Constance DeJong, adapted from the Bhagavad Gita
World Premiere: Rotterdam, Stadsschouwburg, September 5, 1980
U.S. Premiere: Lewiston, New York, Artpark, July 29, 1981
Metropolitan Opera Premiere: April 11, 2008