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SATYAGRAHA: GANDHI ACCORDING TO PHILIP GLASS AND THE METROPOLITAN PERA

By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 22 APRIL 2008 — Because the West's operatic oeuvre is essentially fixed, opera goers everywhere come to hear and know the same music, and opera criticism dwells on production, not composition. Satyagraha (1980), presented this season by the Metropolitan Opera, is therefore rare in that, not only is the composer, Philip Glass, still alive at 71, the work has only just made its Met debut, giving its famously conservative audience something that is rare to them: a wholly new experience.

As distinctive as Philip Glass's minimalist style has become, it has not often lent itself to vocal works. Yet the Satyagraha score proves engaging and, for all its techno attributes, emotionally resonant. (When was the last time you read that about an opera composed within living memory?)

The story, such as one can pull from the piece, concerns a series of protests led by Mohandas K. Gandhi during his years in South Africa (1893-1914), a period during which he formulated and implemented his philosophy of nonviolent resistance. As Gandhi, the tenor Richard Croft produces a performance that, though sung in Sanskrit, communicates both character and mood, especially during those moments (and there are too few of them) he is actually permitted to sing.

Minimalism is not a musical style built for action heroes. The singers and the production's "Skills Ensemble" (aerialists, puppeteers, stilt walkers) spend much of their time making symbolic gestures or moving in slow motion. But protest is about exercising and igniting a passion for change. I grew up during an era of protest, and I remember:

Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh ,
Ho Chi Minh is gonna' win!

And that old standby:

Hey, hey, LBJ ,
How many kids did you kill today?

Screen projections during act one show civil-rights marches and cross burnings of that time: all drama made to order. But the production, relying on excerpts from the Bhagavad Gita about staying calm and steady in the face of adversity, and dependent on Glass's restrained and repetitive style, turns protest into a dreamlike meditation on action-that is, it is all act without action. We are told a story by artists willing to place substance in the service of form, and the inevitable tension between message and presentation never resolves itself.

In the third act, members of the Skills Ensemble slowly-very slowly-stretch rows of clear packing tape across the stage. The tape is then slowly-very slowly-rolled into a useless ball by someone suspended from the rafters: a janitorial Peter Pan. The lines of tape are pleasant enough to look at once in place, but watching them unwind is less interesting than following the Zamboni operator clean a hockey rink between periods. It left the orchestra and me with time to kill; they played on while I added up the number of tape reels, multiplied that by the $3.50 per reel Big John's Moving recently charged me, and realized that most of my ticket price had been absorbed by the purchase of packing tape-a humbling reflection for someone who thinks of himself a supporter of the arts.

A moment of excitement and passion did come, and it occurred during the second act, when a piece of scenery was being lowered slowly-very slowly-into place, got caught, and was freed by two or three swift (and loud) kicks from a stagehand. Even in a minimalist world, a little action and excitement will come to those who wait.

Satyagraha
By Philip Glass
Through 1 May 2008
The Metropolitan Opera
Lincoln Center
New York, NY 10023
Tel: (1) 212 362 60 00

Photo above: Nick Heavican/Metropolitan Opera
Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Opera

Alan Behr practices intellectual-property law at the New York office of Alston & Bird LLP. He contributes regularly to Culturekiosque and last wrote on Copyright Law vs. Art and the Papal Censor of the Kissing Nun.

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