Philip Glass' opera Satyagraha, premiering last night at the Metropolitan Opera, is about Mahatma Gandhi's peaceful political trasformation method, called satyagraha, and the development of the method during his years in South Africa.
The work is an opera where themes and elements converge rather than exactly unite.
I. There is a printed synopsis that explains the events of Gandhi's life in South Africa that make up the six scenes plus prologue of the opera. The three acts are grouped around three figures: Leo Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore and Martin Luther King, Jr.
II. There are words from the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient religious text, that are sung in Sanskrit and projected in translation on the walls of the set. I was well situated in the center where I could read everything. These words express the philosophy behind Gandhi's work rather than the events portrayed.
III. There is the monotonous, hypnotic and not precisely repetitious music of Philip Glass, a composer whose minimalist musical language his reached popular mythology.
IV. And finally there is the action depicted in the production.
The goal of a production will be to achieve a true spiritual experience. I feel that Glass' musical idiom is precisely suited to this story which turns out to be about the inner path of the soul of Gandhi while his outer life passes through these specific events. And perhaps it is about the spiritual path of the onlookers as well.
The approach of the production was to take each scene and attempt to express at once the earthly events and the spiritual journey through actions. Each image moved at the pace of Glass' music. We are shown the path to truth and goodness by Gandhi's actions and by the words of Krishna.
There were giant puppets and stilt walkers, people who flew into the air, choruses and soloists, and Martin Luther King preaching to crowds. If I were to criticize the production, it would only be for failing to achieve stylistic consistency from scene to scene.
I've seen Satyagraha before in San Francisco. I was a neophyte Philip Glass listener and had fairly violent reactions to it. Some of the scenes made me want to get up and scream. I resisted. Now I'm just used to him. You can't put your brain back to the place where it never heard Philip Glass for three solid hours before. You can't erase Koyanaquatsi from your experience. It didn't even seem so repetitious to me this time.
The main thing I remember from the San Francisco production is the last scene. It was staged as a picnic. They put down the blanket, laid out the plates, sat in the chairs, ate the food and put it all away. Then they repeated the whole thing twice, the second time without any props. They sat on air. What did any of that have to do with political marching and the life of King? At the Met it all seemed to be about what the story line said it was about.
At the end someone in the upper balcony shouted "Bapu." The audience was not the typical one for an opera, and included a lot of young people. Why regular patrons of the Metropolitan Opera would want to see this remains a mystery, but I'm glad I went. I felt I should stop all this larking about and get a serious job.