Satyagraha, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, February 2018

Non-violence — is there a positive word for it? In creating a proactive term for non-violence in action Gandhi invented satyagraha from two Sanskrit roots, satya meaning truth, and agraha meaning holding on to.

Act I, all images ENO/ Donald Cooper

It is the underlying theme for the three acts of this opera, representing past, present and future, but standing outside time in the sense that no linear thread connects them. The first is named after the Russian author Tolstoy who inspired Gandhi, the second after his contemporary the famous Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore, and the third after civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King who was inspired by him. In each act we see the named figure in the background, and experience a meditation on some aspect of satyagraha. The entire work has the feel of an oratorio, mixing the sacred from the Bhagavad Gita, with the secular from real life incidents such as Gandhi’s formative experiences in South Africa, all brought to life in the brilliant staging by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch.

Act II

The deliberately slow movements reflect the persistence inherent in satyagraha, matched by the insistent intensity of Philip Glass’s music. Yet it starts in silence before the pure voice of Toby Spence as Gandhi breaks the quietude, carrying a clear tone of determination. As Act I progresses we see two giants representing an ancient impending battle between two families, and giant heads in Act II represent the power of protest in British India, with music of rhythmic intensity leading to a beautiful solo prayer from Toby Spence. In Act III silhouettes of violent repression against the American civil rights movement emerge onto stage to remove the protestors, and in the end the artificial barriers that have been drawn across the stage are torn down and folded up.


This staging with its remarkable movement and puppetry, with performers on stilts or occasionally floating into the air, broke box office records for modern opera at its UK premiere in 2007. It remains a compelling production that carries us through the evening on waves of musical peacefulness under the expert baton of Karen Kamensek, who made her ENO debut two years ago conducting Glass’s Akhnaten.

With the marvellous chorus and seven soloists singing a Sanskrit text taken from the Gita by Constance de Jong this choral work raises us from the cares of life to something ethereal, holding on to truth in the face of everyday concerns, or in a word, satyagraha.

Performances continue on various dates until February 27 — for details click here.

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