After a particularly long and arduous winter, fraught with economic woes, hopelessness about world happenings (Shiites, Tibetans…., indecision about the upcoming election, and a general sense of potential doom, Satyagraha could not have come at a better time to lift our spirits.

I’ll admit that I have always been partial to the music of Philip Glass, especially his early works back in the late seventies when I was still trying to keep a rock band together. His music in its simplicity and clarity was a breath of fresh air. But Satyagraha is a work of depth where Glass makes a very serious and far-reaching statement, not only musically but spiritually and politically as well. The piece may have been written down quickly, but it is likely to have developed in concept over a period of 10 years through many trips to India, as Glass was initiated to Indian culture by Ravi Shankar and subsequently had first-hand experience of Indian spirituality and of the ideas that Gandhi left behind.

Upon arrival at the Met we were greeted by a large sign laid over the façade, painted by Francesco Clemente. Its understated light colors, with contrasting elements of tension, hinted to the piece’s mood.

The way I understand it, Satyagraha is a neo-opera that works perfectly in terms of its conceptual elements. First, the separation between the singing and the meaning: the choice of Sanskrit (the classical language of ancient India) a ‘dead’ language that the audience is not expected to understand, clearly places the vocalization in the realm of pure music; the meaning is conveyed through other vehicles in the staging including projected text messages that are food for thought. I quote the composer’s notes: “I like the idea of further separating the vocal text from the action. In this way, without an understandable text to contend with, the listener could let the words go altogether.”

Second, the orchestral design: the ensemble boldly departs from the traditional operatic orchestra; Glass determined exactly what instruments were appropriate for this setting and the quiet, meditative, pianissimo spiritual mood of the Indian scripture serving as libretto is carried without any percussion or brass; even the organ is understated.

Third, the choice of a story line that is more abstract than narrative. Composer’s notes again: “My music tends to have greater emotional impact when it is allowed a longer sweep of time in which to develop. I wanted fewer scene changes, which would permit longer stretches of music… In many ways, I found this somewhat more abstract storyline closer to my way of thinking.”

Fourth, the choice of a subject matter that is both universal and contemporary – I must mention the connection between Gandhi, Tolstoy and Martin Luther King Jr. here.

Fifth, the design of a new form that could be described as an elegant hybrid of oratorio and opera.

Possibly because over time, people have caught on to Glass’ music and are beginning to understand it better, he has found remarkable collaborators who were able to correctly stage the piece. I cannot begin to describe all the wonderful surprises that occur on the stage, in an unusual anti-glitz, soft-colored, almost ecological, natural-fiber esthetic, seemingly recycling newspapers and baskets into temporary oversized characters or Asian-style puppets.

The performers were flawless. Interestingly, vibrato (an early Glass no-no) was present in one aria, to great effect. I was also moved by the soprano duet in the second act and especially the tenor solo at the end, with Richard Croft quietly delivering an upward moving natural scale, over and over. It is an absolute must-see.

Satyagraha: music by Philip Glass, libretto by Constance DeJong adapted from the Bhagavad Gita, staging by Phelim McDernott and Julian Crouch, conducted by Dante Anzolini, costumes by Kevin Pollard, lighting by Paule Constable, with Rachelle Durkin, soprano, Richard Croft, tenor, Earle Patriarco, baritone, Alfred Walker, bass-baritone.

Related happenings:
A collaboration of New York cultural, arts environmental, educational and spiritual institutions working with Glass has launched the Satyagraha forum, an initiative to create a dialogue on Gandhi’s concept of change.
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts is presenting an exhibition of Satyagraha production photos and sketches, historic images and collages on view through April 19.

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