This year brings with it the highly anticipated third revival of Philip Glass’s iconic Satyagraha, an epic opera based on Mahatma Gandhi’s memoir My Experiments with Truth. Since its UK première 11 years ago, which broke box office records for 20th century opera, Satyagraha, which follows the beginnings of Gandhi’s political activism based on principles of civil disobedience and non-violence in South Africa, has sustained its status as the most popular contemporary work to be performed by English National Opera.
The production is directed by Phelim McDermott and designed by Julian Crouch, co-founders of theatre company Improbable. The scenery and puppetry on stage is manipulated with mastery, however conductor Karen Kamensek, a Glass specialist, commands her orchestra with precision and steadiness, which at times eclipses the happenings on stage.
The libretto is sung in Sanskrit, based on excerpts from the Bhagavad Gita, without surtitles. Occasionally, quotations are projected onto the stage, providing introspective material for the audience rather than narrative guidance. Undeniably, it is a work that requires you to rewatch it in order to peel back the layers of meaning.
Glass composed a trilogy of operas based on individuals who changed the world, of which Satyagraha is one. Einstein on the Beach (1976) is the first and Akhnaten (1984) the last.
Set in South Africa between 1896 and 1913, Satyagraha – the truth force – explores Gandhi’s peaceful resistance against the discrimination he observed. In a world where violence and social discrimination remain ever-relevant, we turn to Gandhi’s idea of ‘truth-force’ and Tolstoy’s ‘universal love’ for solace.
The concept of satyagraha is often misunderstood to be limited to passive resistance. One of the first scenes in the opera is at Tolstoy farm, where Gandhi and his allies form a commune and commit to not only work on the commune, but also on their own spiritual development. They vow to resist the enemy, but do so from a place of love, this commitment, they declare, is the spirit of ‘satyagraha’.
“Distinguished tenor Toby Spence is a worthy successor to Alan Oke”
Stillness descends over the London Coliseum, only to be interrupted by the repeating motifs of the cello. Toby Spence’s powerful voice adds to the crescendo and the stage gradually comes to life. The distinguished tenor is a worthy successor to Alan Oke who retired from the role of M.K. Gandhi, one he had held since the 2007 première, Toby Spence, distinguished London-based tenor flawlessly preserves the legacy. His grounded voice provides constancy on the ever-changing stage. In his role as Arjuna, the prince at the heart of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, Eddie Wade’s booming baritone voice harmonises beautifully with Spence’s as they meditatively chant in Sanskrit.
Each act is inspired by one of the three icons of Satyagraha – Gandhi’s inspiration Leo Tolstoy, his contemporary and confidante Rabindranath Tagore, and the man who carried Gandhi’s legacy during the American Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. In grounding the opera in these individuals, Glass is able to appreciate the continuity of the principles of satyagraha through time, place, culture and person.
The first act, aptly named Tolstoy, reminds us of the essential bond between Russian novelist and a young Gandhi, who founded his ideas about non-violence on Tolstoy’s theories on universal love. Tolstoy’s letters to Gandhi were a source of reassurance and counselling to the young leader. This relationship defines the eternal nature of ‘truth force’ that spans across nations.
The second act is inspired by Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, who earned the 1913 Nobel Prize for literature. He sits in an alcove above the stage, allowing the audience to acknowledge the long relationship between himself and Gandhi. Act II is filled with pivotal scenes that give it a more dramatic tone than the first act. The presence of Mrs Alexander (Sarah Pring), the wife of the Durban police superintendent who defended Gandhi from a mob, provides the most climactic scene of the act. The mezzo soprano dominates the stage with her presence; Pring’s performance is powerfully emotive: when the momentum she creates is lost, the audience is left demoralised by the apparent defeat of the “good” forces of the world.
Glass’s music has historically been a source of controversy amongst audiences. Akin to Steve Reich, the pioneer of minimalism, some consider Glass’s compositions too monotonous, repetitive and almost chafing. However, in Satyagraha, his minimalist approach, which he prefers to describe as “music with repetitive structure” could not be better suited to complement and enhance the prevailing theme of the ‘truth force’. Glass’ Buddhist beliefs echo throughout the performance, reflected by the intensely meditative chanting of excerpts from the Bhagavad Gita.
Satyagraha offers a unique and rare opportunity to experience contemporary opera at its finest.
Where? London Coliseum When? Until 27th February How Much? from £24