To review the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha in a newspaper—in this old-fashioned, dying form of media—seems particularly apt, as newspapers both physically and symbolically represent one of the strongest forces in the opera. Satyagraha is visually stunning and musically ahead of its time. This particular production comes at a perfect moment and feels extraordinarily relevant, both aesthetically and politically.
Written in 1979, Satyagraha tells the story of Mohandas Gandhi’s early, formative years in South Africa. The opera is performed in Sanskrit, the language of the Bhagavad Gita, from which the text is derived. It opened last Friday at the Met and continues through May 1.
Because subtitles are eschewed in favor of the occasional text projected onto the set—text which is integrated into the opera and becomes part of the opera’s visual experience, contrasting the normal outlying translations of the genre—the action can be hard to follow. The fact that the scenes are not presented in chronological order exacerbates the problem. If Glass’s intention in this choice was not to confuse but to leave the audience undistracted by line-for-line translation, so as to allow them to let the musical and visual stimuli wash over them, he has succeeded. He allows the incredibly emotive music and Julian Crouch’s production design to tell the story instead.
The term “satyagraha” translates to “truth-force,” Gandhi’s influential idea of nonviolent civil disobedience. The opera showcases the divide between Westerners and the oppressed South African natives through dueling music and color. More often than not, the voices of the chorus sound together rather than highlighting individual voices. It is unquestionably the sound of solidarity.
Gandhi’s pioneering publication, Indian Opinion, represents one of the main actions taken during this civil disobedience. As such, newspapers fill the action of the opera both physically and musically. At times, newspapers become characters in their own right, the thin sheets moving as living creatures. At other times, the crinkling of paper complements the orchestra such that they seem like another instrument playing the painstakingly beautiful score. The juxtaposition of the dying medium of newspapers and the novel medium of textual projections creates a conflict between old and new which is also played out in the plot. The meshing of a fading and a blooming medium is most pronounced when sheets of newsprint are held up to become a moving screen to host the text.
The presence of these newspapers is emphasized most at the start of the second act, with the entrance of massive, gorgeous, and hideous paper-mâché puppets, which represent Westerners who occupy the stage at that time. The puppets impressed even self-admitted puppet skeptic and radio personality Ira Glass, who was in the audience Friday night.
An extraordinary opera production like this can only be as good as its music. In this case, the composer, of course, does not disappoint. The orchestration is spare, most often utilizing only a few instruments at a time. An evocative cello strain becomes a main motive—the sole accompaniment to Gandhi’s voice. A particularly memorable moment occurs at the end of the first act. After a buildup of particularly irritating and repetitive arpeggiation in the flutes, the audience is rewarded with a moment of music that can be described as nothing less than cathartic. The voices sound together in a revelatory moment: the triumph of peace and solidarity over violent oppression.