Satyagraha, English National Opera, ENO at the London Coliseum, February 2010Posted on 26 February 2010
This is an opera about Gandhi (1869–1948) and his belief in non-violent resistance. Violence is a word common to many languages, but non-violence is not described by a single word, so Gandhi invented one — satyagraha. It’s a Sanskrit word from two roots, satya meaning ‘truth’, and agraha meaning ‘holding firmly to’, giving the sense of holding firmly to truth.
The opera is in three parts, headed Tolstoy, Tagore and King. The first is named after the great Russian writer whose letters to the young Gandhi were a source of inspiration, until Tolstoy died in 1910. The second part is named after Rabindranath Tagore the great Indian writer, and first non-European winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. He and Gandhi had a great reverence for one another, and it was Tagore who used the honorific ‘Mahatma’ (meaning great soul) to refer to his friend. The third part is named after Martin Luther King, who was greatly influenced by Gandhi’s teachings, and remarked that, “Christ gave us the goals and Mahatma Gandhi the tactics”.
Despite these three parts referring to past, present and future, the libretto has no narrative in the conventional sense, and there are no surtitles, though it’s sung in Sanskrit. Words are occasionally projected, sometimes on an array of newspapers held up by the performers, and whole sentences occasionally appear on the backdrop. The libretto, like Glass’s music, is very repetitive, but I mean this in a good sense, and its insistent intensity provides a way of approaching the persistent minds of original thinkers like Gandhi, and others (Einstein, Galileo, Kepler, Akhnaten) about whom Glass has written operas.
This one about Gandhi reveals excerpts from his life, such as his early experiences as an Indian lawyer working in South Africa when he experienced racism at first hand. For example, the incident when he was attacked by a crowd of white settlers, and only rescued by the wife of the police superintendent, is vividly shown. Many years before Gandhi went to South Africa he had studied the law at University College London, where he acquired an interest in Buddhist and Hindu literature, and joined others in reading the Bhagavad Gita. Excerpts from this great poem are performed by giant puppets, battling one another in slow motion, the puppets themselves being constructed on stage from baskets and rolled up newspaper. This puppetry, and the masks that appear later, are glorious and enliven the rather static nature of the music. With excellent sets and costumes the whole opera becomes a slowly moving picture that changes, yet somehow remains the same, just like the music.
Stuart Stratford conducted it, keeping both orchestra and singers in unison, and bringing out the lyrical and rhythmic quality of Philip Glass’s music, while Gandhi was well sung and very calmly performed by Alan Oke. The absence of surtitles and clear narrative is unusual, but I found the whole work an uplifting experience. The production by Phelim McDermott, assisted by Julian Crouch who also did the marvellous set designs, along with excellent costumes by Kevin Pollard, and superbly subtle lighting by Paule Constable, has a rather ethereal quality, and as a friend of mine said, “I was left humming peaceful thoughts all the way home”.