Satyagraha – An Opera in Sanskrit


A Review of Satyagraha

Elena Jessup – March 2010, London

In January of this year, a friend told me that the English National Opera was reviving its performance of Philip Glass’ Sanskrit opera Satyagraha in London.  Since my husband and I missed the first performance in 2007, a huge surprise hit, we decided to buy tickets for one of the shows in March.

Although both of us are Sanskrit teachers and have degrees in the language, we were rather nervous about investing a precious Saturday night on a work with which we felt we had no connection.  We were vaguely familiar with Gandhi’s life story and completely unfamiliar with Philip Glass’ music.  Would it be strange? Boring?  The running time of the performance was three hours, which made me nervous.  In the end, we opted for the cheapest tickets, consoled by the fact that we could leave after the first act. When we went for our chocolate ice creams in the interval, we were so impressed that we did not want to leave. 

Satyagraha is not a ‘normal’ opera like Carmen or The Marriage of Figaro.  Composed in 1980 by Philip Glass, it uses the text of the the Bhagavad Gita as a contemplation of Gandhi’s concept of non-violence.  Like a meditation, the work is non-linear and cyclical; as my husband put it, ‘Don’t expect to be entertained.  This is about becoming still.’  In spite of this, the ENO’s performance was amazingly enjoyable due to two factors.  First, the music is moving and powerful, and the orchestra and performers, especially Alan Oke (Gandhi), conveyed it so brilliantly.  Second, the staging was done by Improbable, a UK-based company known for its fresh approach to theatre.  Puppets, masks, and other novelties provided the audience with surprises and insights.  Another original innovation was the integration of the surtitles (i.e., the translation of the Gita verses) into the production, which was accomplished by projecting the words onto different locations on the stage.

However, there were two flaws in the performance, both of which relate to how Sanskrit was used in the work.  The first is that the Sanskrit text was garbled and indistinct.  It would be useful next time for the producers to employ a Sanskritist to help to clarify the performers’ pronunciation.  The second was that the surtitles were so cleverly integrated into the staging that most of the audience members could not see them clearly, unless they were sitting in the most expensive seats.  This was distressing for many people because the meaning of the Sanskrit was so important to the spiritual effect of the opera.

Nevertheless, Satyagraha had replaced The Magic Flute as my favourite opera and I was keen to go again.  Two weeks later we brought some Sanskrit A-level students.  I asked them what they thought.  They said they mostly liked it – not bad coming from a group of 18 year old Londoners.  Hats off to Philip Glass and Improbable for pulling in the punters for a contemplative opera with a Sanskrit libretto; it was great to see so many people experiencing the power of the Bhagavad Gita.

Elena Jessup teaches Sanskrit at St James’ School in central London

Satyagraha’s run at the ENO has now finished, but you can listen to and follow part of the score – and the libretto – on a special site the ENO have set up here. 


9 Responses to “Satyagraha – An Opera in Sanskrit”

  1. 1 S April 5, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    This is interesting and I had never heard about it; thanks for writing about it!

    Since I’ve seen only the website for this one, The Magic Flute remains my favourite opera, though. 🙂

  2. 2 Martin Merry April 6, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    I was completely fascinated to read this review by Elena Jessup. I have to come clean: I am the Chorus Master at English National Opera and I was totally responsible for the chorus’ contribution to the performances of Satyagraha. Of course, I realised that there might be problems over the pronunciation of the Sanskrit and indeed, as you say, there were. The phonetic guide which came with the vocal score was made by Philip Glass and it was on that I based all our pronunciation. I went to SOAS for some guidance which helped a lot but even when I discussed the pronunciation with experts there, they found a lot of differences of pronunciation. I apologise now for the “garbled and indistinct” Sanskrit that you heard in the performance. I can only say that it was an amazingly exciting experience for us to perform this work, despite the immense difficulty in learning it, and hope that, if we do it again, we might get more guidance on the sanskrit text.

    • 3 Elena Jessup April 27, 2010 at 7:47 pm

      Dear Mr Merry,

      Thank you for your response to this article.

      If you need any help with the Sanskrit for your next performance of Satyagraha, I would be happy to offer assistance.

      However, I hope you don’t feel my article cast your performance in a bad light! It really was so inspirational — after the show I bought all the music off of iTunes. Will the ENO be producing a CD? And, will the ENO be producing this show again? I hope so!

      Elena Jessup

    • 4 Bijoy November 29, 2011 at 12:46 am

      Hi Martin,
      Fantastic work. I am hoping to see it again.
      Being from India I have recited those verses over and over (from Bgagbad Gita) But in a completely different style. More like Vedic chanting. Specially the last 8 lines. (Yada, Yada, Hi Dharmasya…) And it’s still hard to say it sometimes.. lol. And I took basic Sanskrit in junior school… what was i thinking?
      But I got the thread towards the end. then it was easy to follow.
      Do you have any suggestions to where I can get a copy of the original music score to the opera? That has the phonetic breakdown of the Sanskrit text with the music?
      Thank you again for an amazing work.

  3. 5 Bog February 6, 2011 at 2:36 am

    This is one of our favourite operas, and have seen it twice, and listen to the CD many times.. Akhnaten is another favourite.

  4. 6 Bijoy November 26, 2011 at 2:17 am

    It was an amazing and spiritual experience. I will go for the encore.

    I am looking for the original libretto and the score sheets. In Sanskrit.
    Anybody knows where to find them?

  5. 9 Iwan Ismail March 23, 2013 at 8:54 pm


    Great blog and review on Satyagraha! I was wondering where I can get the Sanskrit text of the opera.

    Thank you.

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