In the 12 years after Philip Glass first worked with sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar in 1965, the composer frequently traveled to India, becoming fascinated with Mohandas K. Gandhi, a man whose photograph he often encountered in railway stations and public waiting rooms. Inspired to learn more about the “father of the India,” the shaggy-haired experimentalist read Gandhi’s autobiographical book Satyagraha (‘Truth Force’ to those whose Sanskrit is a little rusty), which described the events of his formative years in South Africa when a young Gandhi was first inspired to develop his mantra of non-violent protest. Shortly thereafter, the composer, famous for such works as the 12-toned “Music in Twelve Parts” and “Another Look at Harmony,” decided to honor his inspiration by composing an opera about the famous pacifist.
The current seven-show revival of Satyagraha, as well as it’s Metropolitan Opera premiere back in 2008, have proven to be more successful than the 1980 premiere in Rotterdam. But then again, it’s hard to imagine a production capable of topping the multimedia spectacle dreamed to life by British production/direction duo Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, both of London’s Improbable Theater. (Glass suggested the collaboration after seeing a touring production of the company’s Junk Opera, a surreal puppet show based on Der Struwwelpeter, a book of disturbing German children’s stories.) As one would expect of Glass’s work, Satyagraha certainly challenges the traditional definition of opera, as only the use of classically trained singers (nearly the same talented cast as in 2008) and symphonic scoring are remotely operatic in the traditional sense. Yet, the many sizable donations given to revive the production this year at the Met indicate that the patrons really didn’t give a Flying Dutchman. And why should they? Whether it would be better labeled as performance art with musical accompaniment or as ‘Cirque du soleil meets Broadway’s Lion King‘ seems hardly relevant in light of the success.
Similar to Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, the first in the composer’s loosely-connected operatic trilogy (Satyagraha was second, and Akhnaten, third), Gandhi’s story similarly lacks chronology, taking the audience from his communal Tolstoy farm in 1910 to the Satyagrahi’s protest and burning of Indian registration cards in 1908. “The outline was more of a series of moments in Gandhi’s life,” wrote Glass in his 1978 book, Music. “It would be like looking at a family photo album, and viewing pictures over a span of years: [The order] wouldn’t prevent you from developing a picture of the family growing up.”
Indeed, the entire piece could be conceptualized as a series of meditations, each scene a contemplation of a new topic, as Glass’s signature arpeggios dominate the score. Glass, who has referred to himself as “a composer of repetitive structures,” arranged the orchestra and vocal parts as he knew best, with a disregard for the rules of traditional classical composition, and instead created a score which tripled the winds and strings, completely excluding the brass and percussion section, while the Metropolitan Opera Chorus and solo ensemble as if it were just another instrument down in the pit. The result is a score with repetitive strength, which proved hard to handle for some of the Met’s traditionally inclined patrons, who left empty seats after intermission.
Much like the communal collaboration between Gandhi and his followers, Glass needed the creative genius of Messieurs McDermott and Crouch to make his dreamlike arrangement a Gotham City success. The fact that the staging won such great acclaim back in 2008 is of little wonder. In keeping with Gandhi’s principals of modesty, the team creatively used simplistic materials such as corrugated iron and newspaper on the grandest of scales, inducing epic Godzilla-esque battles as early as Act I, Scene I. Have you ever seen a 30-foot newspaper-constructed umbrella-wielding evil queen duel with an equally magnanimous wicker basket giant? The Observer certainly hadn’t – until Satyagraha, when both figures were deftly brought to life by the Skills Ensemble, an acrobatic troupe assembled for the 2008 production, who kept the stage lively throughout the evening.
As Glass wrote in Music, he was surprised to learn that upon his return to India in 1914, Gandhi had brought nearly every document back with him from South Africa – receipts, personal letters, newspaper reports – all of which are now on display in the New Delhi Peace Museum. Gandhi believed in harnessing the Media to disseminate his message, a topic which Glass focused on Act II, Scene II: “The Indian Opinion,” named after the Satyagrahi’s weekly publication, cleverly brought to life on stage as soaring ribbons and undulating orgy-esque paper piles. The scene concludes as Richard Croft, a tenor well suited for such a challenging role, stood center stage, bathed in light, while a snowstorm of loose pages fluttered down from above. Such poignant staging complimented the Sanskrit text adapted from Bagavad Gita, a Hindu epic which fits perfectly with Gandhi’s teachings. “Let the man feel hatred for no being/ Done with thoughts of “I” and“mine,” read the text projection.
In the final and most prolific scene, the audience witnesses a series of chaotic events loosely tied to Gandhi’s 1913 New Castle March, during which he led thousands of South African Indians in peaceful protest. The scene featured, among other things, a cameo from Martin Luther King Jr. (one of many peace-makers who appear throughout), as well as projections of the 1960’s race riots and shadow figure police brutality. Eventually, decades are crossed as crowd control officers explode through newspaper covered panels, shimmying down ropes commando-style before forcefully removing the members of Gandhi’s core supporters.
Mr. Glass, now 74, made an appearance at last Tuesday’s curtain call and was greeted with ferocious applause. After the performance, The Observer overheard a young woman (one of several wearing Sari’s) addressing her pink-haired friend. “This was like my exact aesthetic,” she said enthusiastically as her friend nodded in agreement. The younger generation was well represented this evening, likely attracted by Mr. Glass’s taste for the avante garde and perhaps also taking notice of many staged parallels to the events taking place in a little park in downtown Manhattan. The Observer couldn’t help but wonder whether this genre-bending opera, through the status of its venue, would be able to reach out to a world that has much to learn from Gandhi’s teachings.
As Mr. Glass once said in an interview with the Met, “There’s a line at the end of Satyagraha, when Krishna says, ‘I come into the world a man among men to put virtue on its feet again.’ I’m inspired to do opera with this hope.”