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Part the First; In Which I Go to the Opera

May 3rd, 2008 (02:38 pm)

© 2008
D. Gordon

Some time back, when I was kicking around San Francisco, I spent a fair amount of time with my college roommate and her now-husband, who were grad students at Berkeley. They had a cassette of selections from Philip Glass operas, which I heard a few times, then picked up myself. I thought I'd be really interested in Akhnaton, since it's about ancient Egypt (I had a thing about ancient Egypt as a kid), but it was "Kuru, Field of Justice" from Satyagraha that I really plugged into music-wise.

I'm not much into opera (although Mozart's cool; he wrote for the clarinet which I played for 10 years), but along the way I picked up the full Satyagraha on CD and always thought it would've been interesting to have seen the 1980 commission for the Municipal Theater in Rotterdam live. So I was really surprised a few weeks back when I found out it had premiered at the Metropolitan Opera and was running for the month of April. It took about twenty minutes to decide to buy a ticket.

...And while I'm still not much into opera, I'm very glad I went and wish I could see it again. It's the kind of performance where a lot is going on and several viewings are needed to catch everything. First there's the music: clearly Philip Glass, but much much fuller than just the repetitions he's characterized for. In going through what I could of the libretto beforehand (April's been busy), I noticed that the lyrics have that same repetition to them – they're from the Bhagavad Gita, but the score breaks them down into syllables which are repeated Glass-style, from what I can tell sometimes in the middle of words. However, as Glass states in his playbill notes, it's not about the words; it's really about the music (well, to a certain degree; he doesn't do happy vs mournful vs victorious so well – it's all epic sweep, but then it's an opera) and about the actions on stage...

...And *that's* where the opera shines. No powdered wigs and fans here; it's projected words and images, and puppets a la Julie Taymor, and manipulations of materials such as paper, tape and baskets, and simultaneous action on different parts of the stage, and slow movements on the part of the actors. There's also a unit of puppeteers, aerialists, and 'performance-makers' named "The Skills Ensemble" that were put together especially for the opera (www.improbable.co.uk); they don't sing, but they handle virtually all the other onstage activity. They also use materials that fit in with Gandhi's principles of satyagraha (similar to his calls for making and wearing homespun cloth): paper and baskets become two warring giants, tape becomes dividing walls, then a human figure. Really something beyond a general "opera."


from the Metropolitan Opera website


The opera is split into three acts, each named after notable figures with some tie to Gandhi. Each act is further dividend into scenes which depict pivotal events which were turning points for the satyagraha movement. So Tolstoy, with whom Gandhi had a correspondence, sits off to the side writing letters as Gandhi establishes the Tolstoy Farm collective and pledges to resist the British Black Act to death, if need be. Tagore, the only living authority acknowledged by Gandhi, overlooks Act II from his wicker chair, birdcage at hand, as the satyagrahis burn their registration cards (five-minute fire on stage! kewl). And everything really comes together in Act III, named after Martin Luther King, who directly credited Gandhi's for the methods of nonviolence used in his own civil rights struggles. King, back to the audience (a change from the other two), gestures from a podium to an invisible audience as various projections – the March on Washington, figures of riot police beating protestors – play out around him. (All this is in the background as Gandhi's New Castle March unfurls in the foreground.) King is the most active side figure of the three, and has the most interaction with Gandhi, because he's the future – the second fulfillment of Gandhi's philosophy, the proof of its transferability. It's only fitting that the New Castle demonstrators are led offstage by the 1950s riot police, and the walls fall away until King is on a high podium, before a cloud field, orating, as Gandhi looks to him – the future. And then King turns to watch Gandhi... It's a visual that's really hard to describe, but something I'm not going to forget for a long time.

I've heard there's a DVD of an earlier performance (1983). The Met production had nothing like the original staging – there was no "Skills Ensemble," for one thing – but it'd be interesting to see what was changed and what stayed the same.

And, not being an opera person, I can't speak to the singing. I thought that the score was slowed a bit from the CD, and that Alan Oke as Gandhi had much the same pure quality of Douglas Perry's voice on the CD. A few people on the subway thought that Mary Phillips as Mrs. Alexander was Surprisingly Baaaad. I thought it was a little hard to hear her, but who knows.

This does make me want to find out more about Gandhi, though; if anything was really a problem, it was my frustration at how little I know about Gandhi's life story. Everyone knows that he led the nonviolence movement for Indian independence, but I'm not sure how many know just what that means – and can understand just how relevant that is today. (Which is a big reason why this opera was staged now.)

More info about the opera – with pictures – can be found on the Met's website. I wish I could take you all to a performance.