PRINT December 1980

Gandhi in Choral Perspective

OPERA IS A THEATRICAL UNION of two systems of organizing sound, music and language—one primarily abstract, one primarily referential. Language makes music more referential (music ritualizes language, language verbalizes music). Philip Glass has composed an opera titled Satyagraha; it is about language—language moving from the edge of abstraction to the edge of action. In collaboration with Constance De Jong as librettist and Robert Israel as costume and set designer, Glass has sailed his music through sense and sight into a theatrical unity of clear and buoyant beauty.

This is Glass’ first fully vocal work. In his previous works, the voices imitate instruments and blend into the amplified sounds of his ensemble—the sounds of the voices are either fully abstract or are numbers and notes that repeat the structure of the music. Satyagraha has a chorus of 40, six principal singers and two minor ones. There are melodic lines, there are solos—the vocalization moves in and out of the sound of the orchestra rather than fusing with it.

The voices sing in Sanskrit. Sanskrit is the original language of the Bhagavad-Gita, the principal Hindu religious text. Gandhi is the main personage in the opera, and the Gita was one of his prime sources of inspiration. Passages from the Gita comprise the libretto. Sanskrit provides not only a literal authenticity to the opera but also a vocal one—it is still the major vocal language of southern India and has a natural euphony that lends itself to vocalization—almost every sound starts with a consonant and ends with a vowel. It is ideally suited to the flowing, repetitive structure of Glass’ music.

Sanskrit is meaningful in terms of Glass’ own development, as well. His work with Ravi Shankar, in Paris, in 1966, and his studies with the tabla drummer Allah Raka, in 1967, were crucial to the structural clarity of Glass’ early works. He suppressed Western notions of melody and harmony in favor of the additive structure of Eastern music—small units of notes create large cycles of beats that are then joined to other cycles, creating wheels within wheels of constantly spinning and shifting rhythms. A slight change in chord sends rich reverberations through the entire flow. With Another Look at Harmony, 1975, and the music for Einstein on the Beach, 1976, Glass began to reincorporate more Western notions of harmony into his music, bringing new tonal richness and complexity to the rapturous roll of his sound.

Satyagraha brings Glass’ music back home—it is his most traditional work. It is his first piece scored for full orchestra and chorus and for the first time the sound is not amplified—missing is the pulsing stream of Sensurround sound that envelops and carries the listener to the edge of consciousness. The sound fills and frames the stage rather than activating the whole volume of the house; the surface is still liquid and uninterrupted but more lyric than the driven whirl of much of Glass’ earlier music that has proven so popular and influential with the boys from Byrne and Bowie. It sounds like a requiem mass performed in outer space. The music is still unmistakably Glass, but now one must enter rather than be immediately enveloped.

What Glass has done is make the orchestra sound like his ensemble, which is primarily composed of electric keyboards and organ. He has turned the notion of an orchestra inside out. The organ was originally developed to imitate a full orchestra. Glass makes the full orchestra imitate an organ—he has created music for full orchestra that sounds as homogeneous as a single organ—everything disappears into the music. It is all but impossible to identify the individual instruments; an electric organ has even been added to fill out and sustain the uninterrupted continuity of the sound. Percussion and brass have been dropped—all is breath and flow (woodwinds and strings).

The opera is in three acts with a total of seven scenes. Each scene is composed of harmonic modules in rippling variations—ceaselessly spinning as they flow from one scene to the next. Occasionally the music approaches the exuberance of his previous works such as Dance, but generally it moves in a more lyric and mellifluous mode. The vocalization is primarily choral. The individual voices disappear into the music as do the individual instruments. There are solos, but they remain part of the overall weave. In the third act, the tenor playing Gandhi is required to sing 30 consecutive E-minor scales—his voice, like the entire opera, seems to be subsumed into one timelessly sustained breath of spirit.

Like the music, the “action” moves in a layered loop of time. Without strict respect for chronology of events, the three acts telescope Gandhi’s formative years (1893–1914) in South Africa into one day—morning, noon, and night. Each act is attended by a single personage representing the past, the present, and the future of Gandhi’s teaching. All three men share a profound and positive belief in the power of language. Tolstoy, who was a mentor and correspondent of Gandhi, presides over the first; the Indian writer and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, who was Gandhi’s peer and fellow antagonist to the caste system, presides over the second; Martin Luther King, who carried some of Gandhi’s methods and teachings into the future, presides over the third. All three acts are cast in the context of the Gita, which provides the text for the opera (its action also takes place in one day). At first it appears that the opening scene places Krishna and Arjuna at the head of the two warring groups of Indians chronicled in the Gita—but slowly the lights reveal that the two armies are instead Indians and white South Africans. Myth dissolves into history. Text and action are parallel not congruent.

Like the music, the “action” just flows—no conventional hero, no climax. There is no false moralizing or spiritualizing. Not a sermon but a celebration. The celebration of a concept flowing through time, spread and particularized by Gandhi. A celebration of Satyagraha: “Satya” (Truth and love) and “agraha” (firmness)—a nonviolent force born of love. The opera is about the formation of this word. It was in South Africa that this word was conceived. Gandhi came to South Africa with the privileged education of a British barrister only to find himself and his fellow Indians a despised and discriminated-against minority. The opera unfolds in a series of tableaux of confrontations and political actions burning restrictive identity cards while taking the vow of Satyagraha, building the commune Tolstoy Farm, printing the paper Indian Opinion, culminating in 1913 with the protest march and strike at the mining town of New Castle.

Like the music, the “action” is ecstatic not didactic. However, as distanced and hieratic as the opera is, the use of incidents like the burning of “registration” cards and the presence of Martin Luther King cannot help but remind the audience that the violence of King’s death is not very far away, that South Africa still has apartheid, that the Indian government is hardly immune to nuclear fever, and that banana republicanism runs rampant. Perhaps if we had more respect for the word, we would have more respect for the world. Like its subject, the opera is passive in its action. It encourages consciousness on a variety of levels but does not preach.

Glass started this opera shortly after the completion of Einstein on the Beach. He conceived the subject, the use of Sanskrit, and the historical personages. The fiction writer Constance DeJong, who shares Glass’ interest in Eastern culture and is highly conversant with his music, worked with Glass on the theatrical organization of the scenes, helping to reduce the scenes from 21 to seven, finding the most suitable opening scene, highlighting personal events during Gandhi’s stay in South Africa and creating variety within the regularity without breaking the surface of the flow. It is she who wrote the phonetic translation of the Sanskrit after learning the language in transliteration and choosing passages from the Gita that made the proper sense and sound. Robert Israel, the set and costume designer, worked as closely with Glass as did DeJong. He has long been an enthusiast of Glass’ music and has friends and roots in the same New York avant-garde art of the 1960s that nurtured Glass, but his past work has been primarily with more conventional opera productions in Europe. After beginning work on the opera, Glass, DeJong and Israel traveled together in India in January 1978. Israel’s strong impressions of the functional elegance and restraint of Gandhi’s ashram and the opulence of the South Indian Kathakali theater are the two polarities that were instrumental to his creation of a visual illusion that perfectly frames the opera’s sound and sense. The stage is seen at all times but seen between two scrims—an off-white one in front and a cloud and-sky-dyed one in back, making the opera flow through an aquarium of diaphanous light. In the center, at the back of the stage, is a giant, dark, truncated, space-age pyramid that is the pedestal for the historic personage in each of the three acts—so the spiritual “conductor” is placed opposite and above the musical conductor. The pyramid is the only fixed and permanent prop, literally and figuratively creating an otherworldly space with it size and scale. All the other props, and there are few, are carried on litters or come down on drops—they are simple, crisp, and colorful and leave the space open and fluid. The stage sparkles but nothing visual interrupts the flow of the music. Indeed the props seem to be moved by the music—especially the printing press in the second scene of the second act. The press that prints the words that galvanize the Indian community. A Western machine converted to Indian use. It is bright red and yellow and gray and looks like a tantric mandala spinning wheels of sound on the stage.

The costumes of the 40 members of the chorus, who are almost constantly on stage, blend together as do the voices—beiges for the Indians, soft, powdery pastels for the Victorian garb of the Europeans. They are offset by the gaudy splash of the Kathakali-inspired Krishna and Arjuna and the shining whiteness of Gandhi.

Israel brought in the lighting designer Richard Riddell to work with him. The lighting is as simple and direct as the props—never tricky. It undulates from morning to noon to night as it interweaves with the action. Riddell brings the magical clarity of a rainbow to the stage.

Glass, DeJong and Israel together with Riddell worked like family; virtually everyone else involved in the opera, except for one of the principal singers, was a stranger to Glass’ music. As widespread as his reputation is, it has heretofore never dented the walls of the establishment’s castle. The Metropolitan Opera took no real responsibility for Einstein on the Beach but merely unbolted its doors for two days (Virgil Thomson has yet to be invited through those doors as a composer). Satyagraha was actually commissioned by the City of Rotterdam and produced by the venerable Netherlands Opera Company (the opera premiered on September 5, 1980, in Rotterdam and was seen by this writer in its final performance in the Netherlands on September 23rd in Amsterdam). The opera company’s general manager Hans De Roo has a budget like anyone else—he also has will and intelligence and is capable of educated risk be it Glass’ opera or the performance of all of Monteverdi’s choral works. A rose to De Roo.

More roses. The conductor Bruce Ferden, who at this writing is conducting Rigoletto in Anchorage, Alaska, made his European debut with Satyagraha. He had never heard Glass’ music before and had a hard time convincing first himself and then the chorus and orchestra that it was music and that it could be played and sung—and sung in Sanskrit. The repetitive nature of Glass’ sound is alien to conventional musicians. The timing and minute variations require retraining and unparalleled concentration. Ferden was able to convert the skepticism of the orchestra to high skill (if not inspiration) and to draw joy from the chorus. The principals were all excellent, especially the tenor Douglas Perry in the role of Gandhi. The seemingly effortless clarity of his voice and his smiling grace brought a rich authenticity to the stage.

If there was any weakness in the production, it was in David Pountney’s stage direction. Accustomed to more conventional operatic dramatics, he had occasional difficulty in finding properly ritualized movements for the singers. A crowd menacing Gandhi got a bit goofily Broadway when frozen gestures would have been sufficient. A group of women, at Tolstoy Farm, shuffled to the music when a glide or a bold step would have been more fitting. However, most of the movement had a suitable and simple classicizing elegance reminiscent of a David painting or some of Robert Wilson’s cooler tableaux. The singers generally remained quite static but they were set in (slow) motion by the ethereal grace of the props and lighting and the breath of the music.

If the members of the orchestra and chorus had doubts whether or not Glass could be opera, devotees of Glass might have had doubts whether or not opera could be Glass. Glass has long been interested in performance, composing pieces for the Mabou Mines theater company and doing works like Dance with Lucinda Childs and Sol LeWitt, but the music always remained quite abstractly self-contained—a separate but equal collaborator. This is also true of Glass’ extraordinary work with Robert Wilson on Einstein on the Beach. The music still meant itself. The music of Satyagraha, however, openly embraces its subject. It is the center of a complex theatrical unity. Like many contemporary artists Glass has opened up the structural clarity of his earlier work to permit a more sensual and associative texture—a full orchestra and chorus, harmony, melody, metaphor. It started with Another Look At Harmony in 1975 and has burst into full bloom with Satyagraha.

This Glass, too, rings true. It sounds—and looks—just beautiful. Bravo. More.

Klaus Kertess writes fiction and art criticism.