Sunday, November 20, 2011


(image taken from The Paramount)

Yesterday afternoon, the filmmaker and I went to a live cinematic presentation of Philip Glass' seminal opera, Satyagraha. The work explores the imagined subconscious and the historical realities and beauties of young Mohandas K. Gandhi as he lives and enacts monumental social change in South Africa, a period of intellectual and spiritual development that enable him to later lead the peoples of his homeland, India. Translating to the force of truth, Satyagraha was composed in the minimalist, repetitive, and mesmerizing style characteristic of Glass, and was written in Sanskrit, an incredible feat for composer, performer, and audience alike.

Maintaining tradition of this ancient language, the opera is not translated, however, features projections of powerful passages from the Bhagavad gita, passages presumed to be memorized by Gandhi and running rampant through his neural passages as he confronts the oppression and prejudices faced by an Indian minority in the union of South Africa. As opposed to a reliance on a translated dialogue to tell the story, the directors and production crew build a symbolic landscape, with mythic puppets, demonic and heroic alike, acrobatics, meticulous costume designs, in order to tell the story and to complement and visually illustrate the rhythms and force of the score. Glass constructs a narrative in three acts, organized according to both chronology and to figures of influence for young Gandhi: the past, represented by a correspondence with Leo Tolstoy; the present, embodied by the verse of Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore; and the future, a continuation of his ideals and philosophies by Martin Luther King Jr.

As the opera opens, we were greeted with what is now considered to be an arcane portrait of Gandhi, a lawyer dressed in thick Western garb, traveling to the southernmost tip of a strange continent, desperate for work. The part of Gandhi was sung by a rich tenor; his voice range was very wide. Almost immediately, the stage becomes a visual terrain for imagination, for the thoughts and fears of young Gandhi as interpreted by Glass; plucked from the tales of the Bhagavad gita, Prince Arjuna and Krishna visit the future leader, imbuing the power of truth. As the chorus begins symbolically tilling the earth and building what becomes Tolstoy Farm, the Russian author sits, vigilant and distant, a passive mentor.

(image taken from Musical Criticism)

The production made wise use of the vertical space of the stage; throughout the opera, chains descended onto the stage, for the chorus members to affix various props, articles of clothing and bright lanterns, which then ascended once more in a movement of solidarity. Constructed from pieces of corrugated iron and sheets of newspaper, the set design and the various puppets evoked the shanty towns, easily assembled and destroyed, of the impoverished in developing nations across the globe.

                                                  (images taken from Fangirl in England)

Fundamental to the political thematics and to the narrative of this opera was the power of text, the power of newspaper and the written word as a vehicle for social revolution. Crucial to garnering support, Gandhi founded a powerful newspaper, Indian Opinion, a forum that allowed the minority to engage in important dialogues and to reverberate their voices throughout a volatile society. Historically, mass social movements have corresponded and been catalyzed by advances in communication and media technology: advent of the printing press, of improved and accelerated printing processes, of cinema, of television, of the internet. As these technologies are democraticized, at least in the sense of becoming accessible to the many, to the populous, organization around the ideals and opinions communicated is possible, creating a structure and a power that can be leveraged against a status quo. With a newspaper, the ideas from one can extend to many, can liberate and empower many. Such advances can facilitate the processes of incorporation, of coalescing into a greater, comprehensive, and more viable whole. These various motifs were explored visually by the production team, who made deliberate use of the newspaper throughout the entire opera.

Again, the attention to every visual and aesthetic detail was impeccable, meticulous, and never without meaning; this acute production eye was particularly important in an opera where the historical story is rich, but the action on stage is minimal and dramatic, fitting the music, an opera sung in an old tongue, with no translation. Gandhi and his choral followers are draped in a clean, pure white, almost, slightly tainted along the hems with the mud and the dust of the earth: in essence, a reminder of the vast potential for good and truth in human nature, yet the impossibility of absolute ideals.

As the second act opened, the chorus was dressed in lewd colors, jeering, hooting in animalistic tones, repeated again and again, berating the young Gandhi, who has by now adopted his typical and recognizable garb in the style of an indentured servant. The puppets, gruesome and grotesque, and slightly comical, exacerbate the disdain the mob directs toward the ascetic visionary. Gandhi is rescued, salvaged, by a lone woman, clothed in the immaculate white, later mirrored in the dress of all his followers. During the struggle, and the subsequent successes of the Indian Opinion, Tagore watches from an alcove above, silent.

(image taken from Sharmill Films)

The final act was almost overwhelming in its tone and its feeling. A slow and excruciating march of protest, a struggle with authority, turmoil and despair as his support system, his comrades and family, are torn from the scene in syncopation with the waves of the orchestra. In the last moments, Gandhi stands alone on the stage, the backdrop of corrugated iron peeling away, exposing the figure of Martin Luther King, who becomes, simultaneously, a beacon of vulnerability and of hope. Gandhi is, ostensibly, for a moment, alone, defeated, but before him, in the years ahead, the icon of another future leader, another visionary, who perpetuates and validates the force of truth, the power of passive action.

The opera was, in a single word, magnificent; it is extremely difficult to write something coherent with such a rush of sensory memories, with such undertones of visual metaphor. Cinematically, the presentation was well directed and produced; the camera drifted artfully from wide, sweeping views of the entire stage to pointed, focused attention on minute details, on agonizing or triumphant facial expressions. We were able to experience the breadth of the actors' emotional spectrum and their capabilities, something that would not be possible had we been present at the live show, tucked far away in the balcony, were seating prices are somewhat less ridiculous. I look forward to attending other operas; broadcasting live performances through movie theaters is a brilliant idea, allowing the audience participation to extend far beyond the geographic and economic limitations of the physical venue. Written and first performed at a time when apartheid still reigned in South Africa, it was exhilarating and fascinating to see a fresh perspective, a new interpretation, and to know that this piece will continue to be performed and to carry significant musical, artistic, social, and philosophic important for years to come.


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