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Seen and Heard Opera Review

Philip Glass ,  Satyagraha: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of the ENO, Johannes Rebus (conductor) , Skills Ensemble , English National Opera, The Coliseum, London 6.04.2007 (AO)


Alan Oke (Gandhi)
Elena Xanthoudakis (Miss Schlesen,Gandhi’s secretary)
Janis Kelly (Mrs Naidoo)
Anne Marie Gibbons (Mrs Gandhi)
Ashley Holland, James Gower, Jane Rigby (co-workers and friends)
Robert Poulton (Prince Arjuna)


Phelim McDermott (director)

Julian Crouch (designer)


After experiencing Koyaanisqatsi twice, I thought I was inoculated against Philip Glass.  However, a friend, who knows the opera – and very few do – insisted that Satyagraha was different, and good.   Since his tastes are more conservative than mine, it was a recommendation to act on. He was absolutely right : Satyagraha is amazing!

The opera deals with M K Gandhi’s experiences in South Africa in 1906, when India was part of the British Empire.  At the time, Gandhi was a lawyer in a three piece suit, dutifully embracing the image of Edwardian idealism.  He mixed with other liberals, who believed that colonialism could be changed by earnest discussion and writing letters to the newspapers. But Gandhi realised that words weren’t enough for real change.
Gradually he developed the concept of Satyagraha, a raft of ideas which were a complete antithesis to the materialism and power politics of Empire.  Instead of challenging Empire on its own terms, Satyagraha presented a far more fundamental alternative. Ultimately, by rejecting the colonial power game, Gandhi was able to win Indian Independence.

Gandhi's inspiration came from Ancient Sanskrit texts. Appropriately in this production, a primeval battle scene is enacted by gigantic puppets, evoking the juggernauts of Indian tradition.  They tower over the stage, and are extremely elaborate and detailed.  They are meant to “shock and awe” . But  puppets they are,  however formidable. As the puppeteers step down from their stilts, the giants disintegrate, and we see that they are hollow constructs made by ordinary men.The image is extremely powerful, and important, because it captures the soul of Gandhi’s struggle. 

Moreover, the puppets are made of newsprint. The printed word was important, and Gandhi’s journal Indian Opinion was widely read.  Throughout this production, images of newsprint appear – banners of paper, as if fresh off a printing press, papier mac creations, images of newspaper headlines superimposed on the backdrop.  The images appear relentlessly but ultimately, words alone are meaningless.  “Action”, says Gandhi, is a form of “spiritual exercise”. The Satyagraha movement revolved around simple living, focussed on idealistic communes where humble tasks were shared by all, regardless of race or status. In colonial society that was revolutionary and profoundly subversive.  No wonder the authorities reacted violently, with savage racial laws.  Later in the opera, as the movement gains momentum through strikes and civil action, festoons of newsprint are torn to shreds, the debris swept away by bands of actors with small brooms – just like peasants in India.  Even more striking is the scene where the stage is criss-crossed with what seems to be shining ribbons of light, carefully woven into a maze-like pattern. It’s visually stunning, but the lines are then revealed as sticky tape, transparent but impossible to unravel.

Just as Gandhi symbolically exchanges his suit for a loincloth in order to progress, in the final Act, a man is clothed in a sharp suit as if the knowledge gained by Satyagraha were a kind of spiritual armour.  The man climbs a ladder to a window open onto the skies:he is Martin Luther King, empowered by inner wisdom.

Satyagraha is a spiritual experience because of its subject matter, but that alone doesn’t “make” an opera.  Much has been made of the fact that the text is in Sanskrit, but I believe that is a deliberate part of Glass’s method.  Of course few can understand the language, but that’s the whole point. When you read a Buddhist sutra, it’s not “what” you are reading that counts but what you learn from absorbing the spirit of the texts.  Words are just beacons in a wider mental journey.  It’s not nearly as important to understand the exact words as they are sung, but to understand their overall portent.  This is completely different to what we’re used to, just as non-violence was a complete reversal of authoritarian power.  Words here become an extension of the very concept behind the subject.  Key phrases are beamed onto the backdrop, and remain there for fairly long periods so you can focus and refocus : quite the opposite of fleeting subtitles.  In the Stuttgart production, the phrases were written by actors as they were sung, and so were not nearly as effective as in this production.

Even Glass’s minimalist technique seems to work in this particular context.  The very repetitiveness of it means that a listener doesn’t need to focus on every note.  Instead, the imagination can float “over” the notes, so to speak, the better to concentrate on meaning.  It’s very similar to Buddhist chanting where single sounds are repeated over and over until they blend into the subconscious, freeing the mind from temporal concerns.  It’s not a technique unique to Buddhism, of course, but it works.  On closer examination  though, Glass’s music is surprisingly natural, rather like the normal rhythm of breathing.  Accordingly, the vocal parts, while demanding, are not forced. Indeed, some sections are quite beautifully lyrical, such as the long aria (if you can call it that) for Gandhi in the Final Act.  I don’t like minimalism for its own sake, and find a lot of Cage, Reich and Glass soporific.  In the case of Satyagraha, however, minimalism makes sense because it’s used in support of what is essentially minimalist, oblique subject matter.  In the first act, the conflict between two opposing worldviews is expressed though contrasting string and woodwind passages.
In the final act, cadences rise ever higher, “climbing a ladder” aspirationally, just as the Martin Luther King character does on stage.  It’s also tricky music to perform, as missing a bar, or fluffing a note would disrupt the organic flow.  Wisely, the ENO brought in Johannes Rebus, a conductor attuned to these subtleties.  He brought out unusually fine playing from the orchestra, who seemed much more focussed than has sometimes been the case.

Alan Oke was a wonderful Gandhi, supported by a good cast and chorus.  Top honours, though, to the director Phelim McDermott, who has clearly understood the multiple levels of meaning.  This was truly inspired staging, which extended the libretto “beyond words”, and was thus much more faithful to the spirit of the music and text than a literal staging. Improbable, the independent theatre company which McDermott is involved in, and which created this production, is a troupe with imagination, and specialist technical skills, such as circus and illusion work. Opera is theatre, and these skills can come in handy, but most opera houses just can’t afford to maintain full-time specialists. Whoever decided to hire Improbable for this production for ENO deserves an accolade, too, for it’s a stroke of administrative and creative brilliance. 

Once word gets round that Glass is not to be feared, this production will be appreciated for what it is.  I sincerely hope so, because its complicated philosophic content may well be more difficult for audiences to cope with than Glass’s music per se.  But it’s an excellent production and deserves to be a hit.


Anne Ozorio


Pictures © Catherine Ashmore

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