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.