Satyagraha is the second of Philip Glass’ “portrait” operas, following Einstein on the Beach and preceding Akhnaten. Commissioned by the City of Rotterdam, it received its first performance there in 1980, and has since been performed in London, New York, and Chicago, among other venues.
It is, ostensibly, about Mohandas K. Ghandi, the Mahatma, specifically about his time in South Africa when he began agitating for the end to discriminatory laws against non-Europeans. Although the opera is not built on a linear temporal narrative, there is a historical shape to it. Each act is overseen by a “tutelary spirit” — the first by Count Leo Tolstoy, with whom Ghandi corresponded for a number of years and who provided the foundation for much of his thought; the second by Ranbindranath Tagore, whom Ghandi also knew and who was the only living person that Ghandi acknowledged as a moral authority; and the third by Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi’s great spiritual heir. It’s really sort of a non-narrative narrative.
Much has been made of the fact that the libretto, such as it is, is drawn from the Bhagavad-Gita and is, in fact, in Sanskrit. The “lines,” however, are philosophical statements rather than the sort of declamations we’re used to in opera. It goes to the center of Glass’ concept of theater, I think, to point out that this work is conceived of as a unitary creation: the whole idea is to blend together the music, the words, and the spectacle — and I use that term advisedly — into one theatrical experience.
Sadly, I’m not reviewing a DVD of a performance. I wish I were — I’d love to see this (which seems to be a constant refrain of mine when listening to Glass’ operas). However, have no fear: Glass’ music is perfectly capable of standing on its own, and does so very, very well.
Given the date of Satyagraha, it’s no surprise the foundation is Glass’ signature strong, repetitive rhythmic structures, which propel the music along with terrific energy. That said, however, let me point out that there are passages of great serenity, lyrical and understated, where the rhythm drops into the background to support melting vocal lines.
The remarkable thing about this music, “transitional” though it may be, is the way in which Glass’ basic compositional devices, repetitive rhythmic and melodic structures, aggregate into music that sounds almost traditional until you listen closely, when the influences from Indian and Indonesian music become obvious.
Glass’ vocal writing is an amazing thing to behold. Complex, difficult, the final effect is breathtaking. Satyagraha contains some stunning passages, such as the quartet in scene 2 of Act 1, which uses counterpoint that is a rarity in contemporary music, if it exists at all. The choral opening to Act 2, with its repetition of the word “ha” and its syncopated rhythms, has got to be a killer to perform. The cumulative effect is almost overwhelming, and it’s deceptive: Glass gives you a break — if you want to call an orchestral passage that develops headlong momentum a “break” — and then the chorus comes back, leading into a solo for Kasturbai, Ghandi’s wife, beautifully sung by alto Rhonda Liss.
One other section of note — or at least, one of the most striking to my ear — is the final scene, in which tenor Douglas Perry as Ghandi delivers one of the most transcendant passages I’ve ever heard. Deceptively simple, it’s once again a section with tremendous impact. My first contact with the opera was, in fact, this section: I caught it one evening when I had gotten home late, in a live broadcast from the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and have been haunted by it ever since. It is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard. (Strangely enough, I had been at a New Music program sponsored by the Museum of Contemporary Art. Call it synchronicity.)
Although there are as many opinions of Satyagraha as there are commentators, it is certainly one of the most important works by a composer who has essentially remade opera, and I think I could place it as one of the most important musical works of the twentieth century.
After that, what else can I say?
Personnel: Douglas Perry, tenor; Claudia Cummings, soprano; Rhonda Liss, alto; Robert McFarland, baritone; Scott Reeve, bass; Sheryl Woods, soprano; chorus and orchestra of the New York City Opera, Christopher Keene, dir.
(CBS Masterworks, 1985)