Nearly three decades after the premiere of Satyagraha, Philip Glass’s seminal work from 1979 is re-imagined in a powerful new staging that conveys the timelessness of Gandhi’s message. Performances begin at the Met April 11.
The idea for Philip Glass’s Satyagraha is deceptively simple: depict Gandhi’s formative years in South Africa (1893–1914) when he mobilized the oppressed Indian minority and developed the nonviolent civil disobedience movement known as “satyagraha” (Sanskrit for “truth force”). But the opera, which unfolds in seven pivotal scenes, is anything but a straightforward recounting of historic events. Unlike a traditional narrative, the story exists seemingly out of time, with a structural framework in which past, present, and future converge.
Although Gandhi would soon be thrust onto the world stage, leading India’s efforts to free itself from British rule, his early years abroad were what most intrigued Glass, who is interviewed on page 28. “The South African years were his most creative period, when the persona whom we now know as Mahatma (‘Great Soul’) Gandhi was being invented,” Glass has written. “Until 1914, Gandhi led his small Satyagraha army again and again against the government policies. Almost all the techniques of social and political protest that are now the common currency of contemporary political life were invented and perfected by the young Gandhi during his South African years.”
Mahatma Gandhi in his early years as a lawyer.
Gandhi found a name for his movement because he felt that “passive resistance” was regarded not as an expression of strength but as a “weapon of the weak.” He explained, “Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement ‘Satyagraha,’ that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence.”
Nearly three decades after Satyagraha was written, Glass’s opera is re-imagined in the hands of two contemporary artists known for their brilliant and often surprising theater work: director Phelim McDermott and associate director/set designer Julian Crouch. Their zanily inventive and beautiful staging features improvisational puppetry, aerialists, and projections. When it premiered at London’s English National Opera (which co-produced the production with the Met), it created a sensation and sold out performances. It also elicited remarkable critical praise with writers noting both the stagecraft—“a masterwork of theatrical intensity and integrity,” said The Times—and the work’s fundamental humanity. “The whole thing serves as a monumental affirmation of human dignity at a time when many have begun to question its very existence,” The Guardian declared.
In the new staging—which opens April 11 with Richard Croft as Gandhi and Dante Anzolini in his Met debut as conductor—dreamlike sequences are set against striking, often spare, tableaux. Created in collaboration with Improbable, McDermott and Crouch’s British-based theater company, the production uses elements that are germane to the story in inventive new ways. “The way we improvise with materials such as newspaper and sticky tape seems to mirror Glass’s kaleidoscopic score,” McDermott says. “There’s an opportunity in Satyagraha’s non-narrative structure to exploit that aspect. We’ll be using corrugated iron—a material used in the colonial structures often seen in the background of photograph’s of Gandhi’s campaign— and newspaper, reflecting both our own frequent use of it and Indian Opinion, the publication that promoted his message.”
As the creative team—and Glass— have observed, Gandhi was one of the first people to harness the power of the media. So the newspaper seen in
this production ranges from broadsheets to projected text and even giant puppets. The opera, sung in Sanskrit, takes place in a single day, spanning dawn until nightfall. Although rooted in real-life events, the story unfolds as in a dream, with the composer’s self-described “music with repetitive structures” moving the action forward, sometimes gently and sometimes urgently. “It’s a meditative piece,” Crouch says. “In the process, your heartbeat slows down.”
This sense of timelessness is partly due to the presence of three on-stage “witnesses” (in Glass’s words) who represent the past, present, and the future: Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, with whom Gandhi corresponded until Tolstoy’s death in 1910; Rabindranath Tagore, the revered Bengali playwright and poet; and Martin Luther King, Jr., who would later take up Gandhi’s techniques in his struggle for civil rights. (Key scenes focus on the Satyagrahis’ resistance to and triumph over South African racist policies, which clearly links the opera to King’s mission.)
To place these three great men on the stage with Gandhi further moves history into the realm of poetry. In fact, the text itself, chosen by librettist Constance deJong with Glass, was taken from the sacred Sanskrit text the Bhagavad Gita (“The Song of the Lord”), which was beloved by Gandhi. DeJong and Glass decided to use the philo¬sophical/religious text for their libretto, which opens on a mythical battlefield as two royal families prepare to wage a fierce war. According to Glass, the dialogue between Prince Arjuna and Lord Krishna moments before combat is “a long, often eloquent statement concluding that, though the methods of action and nonaction can each lead to liberation, action is superior.”
Even before he wrote Satyagraha, Glass had a deep interest in the music, culture, and spiritual beliefs of India, a country he had visited many times. That intense bond led to the creation of an intensely personal portrayal of a “strikingly radical” man whose spirit lives on. As he set to work on the piece, the composer’s intention was not to create a faithful likeness of the leader, but rather “an artist’s vision of him.” After the London premiere of the new staging, The Financial Times observed, “Glass’s theme is Gandhi, and here— arguably more than in any of his other stage works—his style finds a soul mate in the opera’s central character.”
At the end of the opera—with its mingling musical, theatrical, and spiritual aims—we are left with two lone figures on a vast, bare stage, Gandhi and his legacy-bearer Martin Luther King, Jr., reminding us of the humanity and enduring ideals of two men of extraordinary compassion, vision, and fortitude.