Glass's Satyagraha

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By Contributor profile

Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine

Helen Wallace
, Updated 22nd March 2012

A recipe for success or for failure? Helen Wallace heads to the London Coliseum for Philip Glass's Gandhi-inspired opera

You will need: piles of newspaper, wallpaper paste, 100 rolls of sellotape, scissors and 20 coat hangers. Mix thoroughly with three hours of major scales and broken chords. Add 12 creative actors, a world-class opera company (not optional) and sprinkle with Sanskrit. Allow to rest. Drink at sundown…

It’s an unlikely recipe for an operatic masterpiece, but Philip Glass’s Satyagraha (1980), as produced by English National Opera and theatre group Improbable, is just that.

Its subject matter couldn’t be less promising: in three acts, Glass traces Gandhi’s early development as a political leader, galvanising non-violent protest against racism in South Africa in the 1900s. The chorus, here in glowing voice, intones verses from the Bhagavad Gita, as do the soloists. Each scene, signifying a specific event in time, is a ritual, reaffirming the goal of right action, equanimity and the journey towards spiritual purity.

I went in impatient with the idea of an opera in which the music did not – could not – embody the drama. Think of the great operas of Mozart and Verdi: the score is the dynamo that drives the narrative. How could Glass’s music, which pulses along in persistent lyrical circles, hope to create real opera?

I stand corrected: Glass’s music does embody this story; his sonorous, tension-free arpeggios and minor thirds are the very ground upon which a luminous meditation arises. The sung homophony aptly represents the united, communal acts of his Satyagrahi followers; as the protagonists shed their shoes, European clothes and possessions, so is Western music stripped down to its bare, diatonic essentials. Glass’s music is, in words from the Bhagavad Gita, ‘that fixed, still state which sustains … the athletes of the spirit.’

So what about those newspapers? Improbable has built up a reputation for developing highly creative theatre from the sparest of resources and here sheets of newsprint, rolls of sellotape and papier mâché figures are used with daring invention to throw up and tear down instant figures and tableaux before our very eyes.

The spectacular moment when Gandhi (most movingly played by tenor Alan Oke) enters the hostile city of Durban, dwarfed by grotesque, giant newspaper figures and jeered at by the mirthless laughter of the European settlers is unforgettable, as is the final scene, in which he reaches out across time to Martin Luther King, the striking image of their shared tragedy seared on to the mind’s eye. It’s a landmark production – don’t miss it.

Glass's Satyagraha is on at English National Opera on 12, 13, 18, 19, 25 & 26 March 2010

Contributor profile

Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine

Helen Wallace