Tuesday, December 06, 2011
Metropolitan Opera – Philip Glass’s Satyagraha (M. K. Ghandhi in South Africa). December 1, 2011.
Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Family Circle E221 ($37.50).
Story. This opera is mostly based on some of the events that happened to Gandhi while he was in South Africa (1893 – 1914). The vocal text is by Constance DeJong and is adapted from the Bhagavad Gita, a Sanskrit text from a religious epic (Mahabharata) dating mostly probably from 5th century BC to 4th century AD, and is a philosophical conversation between the warrior prince Arjuna and the divine Lord Krishna on the eve of a great battle. Act 1 Scene 1 describes some of this dialog. The rest of the opera relates how Indians living in South Africa struggle for their civil rights. The Sanskrit word satyagraha means “true force” which was adopted by Gandhi and others as their ideal. Act 1 Scene 2 (Tolstoy Farm, 1910) discusses how the satyagraphis pledge to resist the European’s racial discrimination, and they set up the Tolstoy Farm to draw people to the satyagraha ideal of “fight on the behalf of Truth consisting chiefly in self-purification and self-reliance.” Act 1 Scene 3 (The Vow, 1906) predates Scene 2, it describes the adoption of Black Act (registration and fingerprinting of all Indians) and as a consequence people attending a rally organized by the satyagrahas pledge to honor a resolution to resist. Act 2 Scene 1 (Confrontation and Rescue, 1896) describes how Gandhi is attacked after his speeches and meetings in India are published; he is saved by his European friend Mrs. Alexander. Scene 2 is about the publication Indian Opinion (1906) which grows in circulation to 20,000 in South Africa. Scene 3 (Protest, 1908) describes how Indians burn their registration cards to protest the arrest of those who disobey deportation orders. Act 3 (New Castle March 1913) describes how the government tries to impose new restrictions on Indians and how they try to organize a march to the Tolstoy Farm to force the government’s hand.
Conductor – Dante Anzolini; M. K. Gandhi – Richard Croft; Prince Arjuna – Bradley Garvin; Lord Krishna – Richard Bernstein; Miss Schlesson, Gandhi’s secretary – Rachelle Durkin; Kasturbai, Gandhi’s wife – Maria Zifchak; Mr. Kallenbach, European co-worker – Kim Josephson; Pari Rustomji, Indian co-worker – Alfred Walker; Mrs. Alexander, European friend – Mary Phillips.
I heard Philip Glass’s music once, his violin concerto, having avoided his music given his reputation of being an ultra-modern composer (turns out he belongs to the Minimalist school.) I found the piece quite easy to listen to, so I was ready to tackle tonight’s 3 hour 45 minute (including two intermissions) opera. Then I read the one-sheet insert in the Playbill, which is translated text of the Sanskrit. When I came to the sentence “My very being is oppressed with compassion’s harmful taint,” I began to have my doubts. Then I read the “In Focus” section of the Playbill and its description of Glass’s music being “entirely accessible” made me ready again. So I was quite curious how it would all turn out before the first note was played. I don’t quite know how to describe the opera, I must say. And it is quite unlikely I will go see it again.
The opera is part of the “Grand Spectacles” series. I am not sure the sets live up to that billing. They are reasonably large and indeed some acrobatics and magic are involved, but not quite on the scale of being “grand.” There are some clever ideas, some (such as the newspaper publication process) make sense, and some are nice visuals (such as the tapes being brought across the stage) but not quite obvious.
The choice of events included is also a bit puzzling. Most of them make sense, but they all seem to involve protests of some sort. I am sure Gandhi did much more than just that. Glass mentions there are many to choose from, so it is unfortunate that the choices reflect (undoubtedly) only a small part of Gandhi’s actions and accomplishments during his years in South Africa. Act 3 has as background a figure representing Martin Luther King Jr. on a podium. Which brings up an issue and a question: issue – King and Gandhi are not contemporaries; question – blacks were oppressed, perhaps even more so, than Indians at that time, why was there no mention of this in the opera? Even more puzzling was Act 1 Scene 1 where we have mythical figures talking to each other. Finally, the story ends as describes above, with absolutely no resolution. I guess I have made my feelings clear on what I think of the story.
Having heard Glass’s music once, the opera’s musical elements didn’t surprise me. The “minimalist” aspect of it makes it not challenging to grasp. The flip side, however, is that the many repetitions Glass thinks are necessary to move the story forward gets tiresome, very quickly. For me it got so tiresome that I nodded off several times. The singing was generally fine, given the vocal parts were not particularly difficult. The most challenging part probably is to keep the meter correctly, from what I can tell, there is a great tendency to change from one meter to another rapidly. Rachelle Durkin (as Gandhi’s secretary) is also a graduate of the Lindemann Young Artist program. While she had no trouble reaching the high notes required of her part, her voice was a bit harsh.
For the reader who gets to go to this Opera, a couple of suggetsions. First read the synopsis to get some idea of what is going on, because despite the reassurances in Playbill, the actions are not self-explanatory. For the most part the words projected on the sets can be ignored. But if desired they can be read up in advance to get some idea of the philosophical statements being made. The opera may make a bit more “real time” sense if these steps are done ahead of time. Otherwise one has to resign to try to enjoy the music and action as they unfold.
On thought I had after seeing Nabucco was that the story could be developed a bit fuller. My view of Satyagrapha is quite the opposite. Despite Glass’s claim that his music tends to develop slowly, I felt many parts of the opera were repeated way too often. Case in point, the last “aria” by Gandhi consisted of a motif of three identical upward scales starting with the mediant; and this trio of scales got repeated so many times that I lost count. And as far as I could tell, the words are the same. When Gandhi’s voice began to break into a falsetto, I thought all the singing finally got to him. Instead the curtain came down, so now I am confused whether the falsetto was planned.
On the way home, I listened to Glass’s violin concerto for a second time. It was exactly as I envisioned it (I didn’t remember much of it, though), except the demands on the violinist are quite substantial. The first two movements were quite all right, and the last movement a bit repetitive but at about 15 minutes relatively painless. One conclusion that can be drawn from this? 30 minutes of Glass is bearable, 3 hours is a bit much.