Satyagraha at the English National Opera

A large semi circle sits at the center of the stage, several cut-out windows and doors across its face, all painted to appear aged and rusted; splotches of color create a most convincing appearance atop a surface that is most certainly not corrugated steel.

And it isn’t just designed to fool the cheap seats. Standing on-stage directly before it on my pre-show backstage tour, I can verify it is just as convincing inches from the surface as it will for even the rearmost of the nearly 2,400 in attendance that evening. I am there for the opening night of the English National Opera’s latest revival of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha

The Coliseum, home to both the English National Opera and Ballet is the largest theatre in London; and standing on the raked upper stage, looking out at the auditorium it shows. There’s also a phenomenal sense of intimacy present, even the lofted ceiling doesn’t seem so far away - and that intimacy grows once the audience lights dim for the overture leading-in to act I. 

Originally commissioned by the Netherlands Opera in 1980, Satyagraha serves as the second in Glass’s Portrait Trilogy. Known for his minimalistic style, Glass conceived the idea of composing a trio of operas depicting the lives of men who changed the world through the power of ideas as opposed to military or strategic might. 

The first of the three was Einstein on the Beach, a four-act piece which premiered in 1976 and loosely follows the life of Albert Einstein. The trilogy then concludes with 1983’s Akhenaten, based on the 14th century BC Pharaoh also known as Amenhotep IV.

Satyagraha focuses on the life of Mahatma Gandhi, with each of the three acts referencing another historical figure who either influenced, or was influenced by his life and achievements.

Following our backstage tour, we moved downstairs to the Coliseum’s American Bar for the first of our three course dinner. The bar boasts a wonderful menu, beginning with passed canapés, which corresponds to the act structure of the opera — our second course would come during the first intermission, followed by dessert and coffee during the second.

Opera has always been something of a divisive medium; originally devised as essentially party music for the wealthy and elite of Mantua, Italy in the 16th-17th century (the first opera whose music survived to present day was Euridice in 1600), to this day it maintains a complicated relationship with the general public.

Much can be said — and will be, in subsequent articles — about the complicated nature of opera, one debate however that has existed practically since its origins has to do with the presentation of the libretto (the actual words being sung by the performers). Should the words be shown at all during the performance so the viewers can follow along, and if so, in which language should they be presented, the original in which they were written or a translation to suit the location performed?

For example, La Bohème, an opera about artists and tuberculosis in Paris, was written by Giacomo Puccini, an Italian with an Italian libretto. When Bohème is performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, should it be presented with Italian or English subtitles?

However, with Satyagraha, Glass provides no option. Written entirely in Sanskrit, the performance involves periodic displays of a printed section of the Bhavaga Gita, an ancient Hindu scripture, written in verse most likely sometime between the fifth and the second century BC.

Aside from that the performance is entirely auditory and visual with an understanding of the events in the show being depicted by the singers on stage.

Additionally, Glass’s minimalistic composing style is accentuated here with the sort of cantillating, rhythmic sounds of the sung Sanskrit. The effect is mesmerizing. 

The difficulty with this style lies in the fact that one feels inclined to relax into a sort of resigned acceptance of the music rather than an active engagement with the sounds and the spectacle on stage — which is only further exacerbated when one audience member in question had something of a late night prior to the performance and an early train from Paris to London for said premiere.

The consistent, dulcet tones provided the most persuasive argument for a nap that I’d heard since watching the Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War directly after lunch one warm spring week in high school. I had previously thought that nothing so effectively induces sleep like a lone violin playing the Battle Hymn of the Republic in a darkened springtime classroom after a large meal.

However, roused from that temporary faux pas, and engaged in a more active resignation, Glass’s score is such an incredible force it sort of washes over you in the gentle yet persistent waves that so effectively mimic Gandhi’s very effective and individual style of revolution; consistent, persistent pressure.

So by the time the third act closes with an image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from behind in silhouette with the leading tenor, clothed in white with shaved head and cane, marching slowly forward with Glass’s Evening Song flowing out and over and through the entire auditorium, it is difficult not to feel the full force of the performance.