Philip Glass’ 1979 opera Satyagraha is about Gandhi, but don’t go expecting to discover a bunch of biographical details. Like fellow minimalist composer John Adams’ 1987 Nixon in China (which had its Met Opera premiere earlier this year), this thoroughly mystical work is an impressionistic portrait of a historical figure rather than a Hollywood-style life story—it investigates the past novelly, for better and worse.
Set in South Africa, jumping around between 1896 and 1913, the opera covers Gandhi’s work for the civil rights of Indians. You might feel more grounded going into the opera with some expositional knowledge of his time there as a non-violent activist and organizer, to which the piece elliptically refers. Constance DeJong’s vocal text, only small portions of which are translated and projected onto the stage (in Phelim McDermott’s 2008 production, now in revival, the Met doesn’t employ its usual chairback translation system, but a translation is tucked into the program), is derived from the Bhagavad Gita, offering sagacious scraps in lieu of narrative information: the importance of work, how freedom from desire brings wisdom. Though the book is structured around historic incidents like the 1913 Newcastle march, it frequently transcends them, as well; thinkers influential and indebted to Gandhi appear, like Martin Luther King, Jr.; the first scene is set before the mythical battle at the Kuru Field of Justice.
Given such ambitious design, McDermott shoots for spectacle: the cast and chorus setting their coats on hangers which rise above the stage; monstrous 12-foot puppets; Gandhi entering a tunnel of undulating newspaper strips the length of the stage; a center-stage fire pit; a woman who floats past the rafters. And then there’s the finale, in which we see an actor as King from behind, pantomiming at a podium while Gandhi in Indian garb struggles to march across the stage; silhouettes of baton beatings are projected against the wall, connecting all peaceful protests, from Gandhi to King to Occupy. But all this imagery, while striking, is as often confounding; paired with the obscure libretto, there’s little way into the work other than Glass’ score.
Fortunately, it’s a fine score. While evoking at times precursive masters like Mozart and Wagner, the opera is also standard-issue Glass, based around pulsing rhythms, repetition, slow expansion, and unsettling chord changes—it’s both mesmerizing and narcotizing. Glass’ music is best when its spaces invite you to enter into its melodic tapestry and lose yourself. (At its worst, which happens a few times here, it bounces you around slick surfaces.) At once familiar and unbalancing, the score befits its story.
Satyagraha will be performed for the last time this season on Thursday, December 1, at 7:30 p.m. More info here.