On Philip Glass’s Opera: Satyagraha

I enjoy operas . I have been seeing practically every HD transmission of the MET. So I couldn’t possibly miss Satyagraha although my ears are not quite attuned to 20th century operatic efforts. But I realize that the era of Verdi and Rossini, Bizet and Puccini are over, and I must learn to appreciate modern stalwarts. That’s why I went to see Nixon in China last year, as well as  Philip Glass’s homage to Mahatma Gandhi, presented today (November 19, 2011). I saw it at Cinemark in Ames, IA. I am glad I went because Gandhi has been a hero since my school days. I still remember standing in a million-people crowd at Lake Maidan in Calcutta decades ago, listening to him speak to the multitude.

I was impressed by the elaborate stage effects and the white, authentic costumes. It was interesting to  hear passages from the Bhagavad Gita which were (supposedly) recited in the original Sanskrit, with a blue Krishna (in blue suit and tie). I rather doubt that the singers received diction lessons from qualified Sanskrit pundits. Though I have read and heard the Gita hundreds of times, I couldn’t distinguish a single phrase from the good singers. They might as well have been doing a Swahili rendition of the sacred text. The excuse given was that mantras are to be heard in their serenity, not in translation: True, but they also become meaningless noises when inserted into a story for the benefit of non-Sanskrit knowing audience. I wish there had been transliterations in Romanized Sanskrit along with some translations as subtitles. Those who knew nothing of Gandhi or the Bhagavad Gita or the Dharmasketra  of Kurukshetra would have been totally bewildered by what was going on, until the first intermission when some background information on Gandhi in South Africa was given.

I enjoyed the music which had a peculiar charm, though very different from the operas I am used to. No bel canto here, nor arias that would provoke cries of encore, nor any aria people would be humming often.  But it was magnificent and majestic all the same, overpowering by its somber serenity. There was also something disarmingly genuine in the enunciation of the tenor Richard Croft whose voice was even and inscrutably pleasant to hear. Alfred Walker as Rutomji was also good, though few would have known that he was supposed to be a Parsi. Kasturiba (Maria Zifchak) and Miss Schlesen (Rachelle Durkin) were very good also.  I liked the ah-ah-ah-ah chorus in the second act which was more rhythmic than some of the other choruses which were slow and repetitive, sometimes  ad boredomiam. The music in the last act especially struck me as  going on and on with no end in sight. The absence of subtitles did not help.

I was impressed by the creative use of stage hands, props and magnificent giant puppets, which, as always at the Met, were clever, complex, and cute. It was nice to see a snippet of Martin Luther King speaking to the masses, although his back looked more like Obama’s. I guess there was a lot of symbolism all through the opera, but I wish I knew what they were symbolic of. Perhaps the cow and the removal of shoes referred to Gandhi’s abandoning the use of leather? Perhaps the endless series of newspapers referred to Gandhi’s many writings in his journal Indian Opinion? Perhaps the throwing of crumpled papers at him referred to how he was attacked? Perhaps the slowly unraveling kilometers of scotch tapes, like Draupadi’s sari,  referred to the never ending birth and rebirth?

I did not notice any Indian/Hindu name in the credits. Obviously no one from the tradition was consulted on any of these matters. I feel the opera might have been made much more meaningful if this had been done.

With all that I am thankful to Philip Glass and others for bringing Gandhi’s  message to the world, because that message  is direly needed in our own times. This is a message of peace, non-violence, and the struggle for social justice. This was certainly conveyed extremely well by the opera Satyagraha.

November 19, 2011

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Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.

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