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Satyagraha

May 1, 2007

I went to see the ENO’s production of Glass’s second opera last night. It covers Ghandi’s period in South Africa from Tolstoy Farm to the New Castle March. There is just one performance left (tonight) so if you are in London and can free up the time I strongly recommend getting a ticket. It normally takes a long time for a modern opera to be revived although this was a joint production with the Met so you get a second chance in New York starting on 11th April 2008. I left the opera house at around eleven in the evening and picked up a text from my daughter asking how was the opera; without thinking I texted back transcendent.

Now minimalism in music is something that you either love or hate. The repetition of fragments of tunes which fade and then flicker into life; engage with the music and you stand outside of time. It is music designed to engage, not to entertain (rather like my previous reference to the difference between Wagner and Mozart). A good introduction, and insight into the power of visualisation can be experienced using IBM’s Glass Engine by the way. Now I have CDs of all of Glass’s Operas, and the other minimalists such as Adams, who I marginally prefer for wonderful El Niño and the comic/provocativeNixon in China. Satyagraha has never stood out for me, until yesterday when I saw it performed for the first time. For this production to work the staging has to match the music and Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch (Director and Set Designer respectively) have over achieved if anything in doing this.

The whole opera uses the text of the Bhagavada Gita and is sung in Sanskrit. This itself is interesting and it places Ghandi firmly in his own tradition and his Act I dialogue with Krishna is fascinating. It finishes with the statement:

Hold pleasure and pain, profit and loss, victory and defeat to be the same: then brace yourself for the fight. So will you bring no evil on yourself

An iconic figure observes from a window high up on the set, and inspires each act, Tolstoy in the first, Tagore the second and Martin Luther-King the third. Ghandi used the power of the press to make his non-violent approach viable and images and poetry are projected onto newspapers through the opera. In the opening act newspapers, cane baskets and papier mâché are transformed magically into the pantheon of Hindu Gods. Subseqently giant papier mâché assembly from the stage to observe and confront the singers. The stage is framed by the rusty corrugated iron than any visitor to South Africa will recognize.

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