Philip Glass’ Satyagraha
Listening to a three-hour opera entirely sung in Sanskrit doesn’t sound like it will be a particularly enlightening experience. But then again, Philip Glass’s Satyagraha is not just an opera—it’s a fully immersive theatrical experience that sweeps the audience up on its immutable waves of melody and rhythm. For the first ten minutes or so, Gandhi, played by the stellar Richard Croft, sings with no subtitles and no action on stage. Yet his face, his pleading onstage persona, and his voice full of near-defeat tell the entire story in a way that words cannot.
Minimalism has had a big year in New York City. Last season was the 75th birthday year for Steve Reich, and this year is the same celebration for Glass. Both have seen large-scale productions at Carnegie Hall, not to mention John Adams’s landmark opera last winter, Nixon in China, the cornerstone of the minimalist operatic repertoire. Glass is different than Reich or Adams, or LaMonte Young or any of the other composers lumped together as minimalist. Glass allows his music to repeat self-consciously, rather than the melodic variation that grows from repeating patterns in Adams, or the multiple parts weaving in and out of each other in Reich.
Glass gives you everything right away: a vocal melody, a string undulation, and a frantic figure in the winds, and then lets them percolate, repeating endlessly like a mantra. It’s painfully repetitive at times, and it’s supposed to be. Glass’s crowning moment in Satyagraha features this exact texture, building and repeating and shifting ever so slightly in Gandhi’s act II solo, the closest this beast gets to containing an aria. As the strings waver slightly, the winds play a set of falling fourths reminiscent of Mahler 1, and Croft sings an elegant and simple rising melody, yearning for the freedom and peace he longs to achieve. When the slightest change occurs, it is an ocean of difference, a seismic shift in aural perception.
Glass can take it too far, at times, as in the closing scene of the entire opera, where a lifeless repeating figure goes on too long. However, when he nails the exact right time to change tacks to a new melody or texture, as he does throughout the second act, it’s magical, like a mischievous friend pushing you right to the brink, and then pulling you back. The chorus was especially effective, allowing for yet another layer to shine in these trance-like polyphonies. During the opening scene, as Gandhi’s melody gains momentum and intensity, the chorus comes in like a shockwave, suddenly jolting the opera into a new realm with their familiar epic classic rock chord progression.
Croft seems designed to play this role, not merely for his uncanny likeness to the great yogi himself. His voice is powerful when it needs to be, but delicate for much of the opera. He acts with his voice, a tough enough feat when singing in a recognizable language. Croft’s voice betrays his classical, bel canto training, but he sings Gandhi with a clarity of tone and control that, were it not there, would ruin the subtlety of the character.
Glass’s opera is all about power struggles, about oppression, and about the birth of non-violent protest. When, in act II, the gathered masses burn their racial registration cards, it feels like an important moment in 2008, not just 1908. The production remained true to the late Victorian setting for all but one moment, when two policemen, wearing the now ubiquitous “Pepper Spraying Cop” riot gear, slowly came on stage to arrest Gandhi’s fellow protesters. Their plastic face shields reminded everyone, especially in a crowd that seemed about 30 years younger than an average Met Opera, that Satyagraha is as relevant in 2011 as when it took place in 1911.