New York: Mahatma Gandhi seems an unlikely operatic hero, but 74-year-old American music composer Philip Glass’ groundbreaking work Satyagraha, is back at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
The opera’s content is timely as satyagraha really seems to be in the air. Simmering discontent has set off the Occupy Wall Street protests. Anna Hazare‘s anti-corruption movement has also snowballed into one of the biggest challenges for India’s Congress party and risks sparking India’s own version of an Arab Spring revolt.
Glass’ Satyagraha is sung in Sanskrit with well-known American tenor Richard Croft as Gandhi and Dante Anzolini as conductor. The opera consists of seven scenes, which director Phelim McDermott compares to snapshots in a photo album. Each represents a crucial event in Gandhi’s life between 1893 and 1914.
English translations from Sanskrit are projected onto the back of the stage during the performances to help the audience follow Gandhi’s story.
For the Met production, the director and designer Julian Crouch have created stunning sets, larger-than-life newspaper puppets, videos and installation art to depict Gandhi’s formative years in South Africa when he first mobilised the minority Indian community and developed what later grew into the sweeping nonviolent civil disobedience movement.
Created in collaboration with Improbable, McDermott and Crouch’s British-based theatre company, startling newspaper puppets are a key set element in the new production of Satyagraha.
“The way we improvise with materials such as newspaper and sticky tape seems to mirror Glass’ kaleidoscopic score,” said McDermott, who has also used corrugated iron — a material used in the colonial structures often seen in the background of photograph’s of Gandhi’s campaign.
In fact, the set is a semi-circular wall that looks like corrugated tin and the stage is filled with larger-than-life puppets, stilt-walkers and aerialists.
The three hour and 30 minute long opera, which unfolds in seven pivotal scenes, is anything but a straightforward recounting of historic events. Unlike a traditional narrative, the story unfolds seemingly out of time, with a structural framework in which past, present, and future converge.
Glass had earlier said that his intention was not to create a faithful likeness of Gandhi but rather “an artist’s vision of him.”
The continued relevance of Gandhi’s beliefs is underlined in the opera by references to three historic figures: Leo Tolstoy (with whom Gandhi had a formative correspondence), Rabindranath Tagore (the only living moral authority Gandhi acknowledged), and Martin Luther King, Jr, who of course postdated Gandhi but who carried his ideas forward.
The Met production of Satyagraha, which runs through 1 December, is the first revival of McDermott and Crouch’s 2008 production.
Watch slideshow with images from the Opera
The Associated Press called the production “spectacular,” with reviewer Mike Silverman describing the music as “frequently ravishing.” Silverman gave the show high points saying, McDermott and Crouch, along with costume designer Kevin Pollard, had “created a feast for the eyes.”