Saturday, April 16, 2016

A Year's Music: Glass' "Satyagraha"

Last month I listened to Philip Glass' opera Satyagraha in my car over several days, a piece I'd known about for a long time but had never listened to.

The second in Glass' Portrait Trilogy of significant and world-changing individuals, the story is loosely based on Mahatma Gandhi's early career. The title, which means "truth force," refers to Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy of non-violence.

The libretto is in Sanskrit and the translated words can be found hereHere is the English National Opera's synopsis. Act 1, "Tolstoy," begins with the story from the Mahabharata of the beginning of the war between the Pandavas and the Kuruvas, the section of the Bhagavadgita wherein Lord Krishna instructs the Pandava warrior Arjuna. In the next scenes, Gandhi begins his work in South Africa, in response to the British governments oppressive policies in India. The opera goes back and forth in time, with Act II ("Rabindranath Tagore") dealing with Gandhi's earlier efforts in South Africa, and the Satyagraha movement taking shape against British policies. The scene of Act III ("Martin Luther King") is the 1913 New Castle March, a protest of South African miners led by Gandhi, which gave the British the unworkable choice of either incarcerating thousands of workers or watching the march become prolonged and larger. In a Met production a few years ago, Tolstoy was portrayed on a high place, writing, and in the last act, Dr. King is portrayed miming oration.

Glass' harmonic and rhythmic style, which he hates being described as minimalist, is nevertheless (to me) difficult. See what you think: Eventually I'd like to see it on DVD to get the visual force of such a symbolic work.

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