Good people do not, generally speaking, make good subjects for operas. Like the Greek tragedies that the sixteenth-century Venetian inventors of opera sought to recreate, Western musical drama has tended to be preoccupied with the darker extremes of human emotions: excessive passion and wild jealousy, smoldering resentment and implacable rage. These, after all, are the emotions that spark the kinds of actions—adultery, betrayal, revenge, murder—that make for gripping drama. Unpleasant as they may be in real life, such actions are essential to the Western idea of theater itself, in which the very notion of plot is deeply connected to difficulties, problems, disasters. Aristotle, in his Poetics, refers to plot as a knot tied by the author (he calls it a dêsis, a “binding up”) out of the manifold strands representing competing wills or desires or ideologies; an ugly and worrisome knot that will, in due course, ultimately come undone in a climactic moment of loosening or release of tension (the lysis, or “undoing”)—a concept that survives in our term “dénouement.”
There can, that is to say, be no theater unless bad things happen, unless there are terrible problems, insoluble knots; without them, there would be nothing for the characters to do. That “doing” gives us the very word by which we refer to what happens on stage: “drama” comes from the Greek drân, “to do” or “to act.” When we go to the theater, we want to see characters doing things. Bad things, preferably.
The inherent dramatic interest of badness helps explain the abiding fascination exerted by bad, or at the very least tormented, characters. In opera as in spoken drama, our attention tends to be focused either on the outright villains—the figures who engineer the bad things that make drama dramatic—or on those characters whose ostensible goodwill is complicated by other qualities, either dark or excessive, that create the titanic dilemmas with which they must struggle so interestingly. But in characters who are saintly—who are without the overweening ambitions that fuel so many plots, who approach life’s crises reasonably rather than passionately, who want to be helpful rather than to prevail—we have little interest. For Antigone, with her outsized allegiances and inflexible righteousness, for Carmen, with her transgressive seductiveness and fatal independent streak, we feel an abiding interest—even, though we might not like to admit it, allegiance—but does anyone really want to see a play about Ismene, or sit through an opera about Micaela? Could you even write such a play or opera? What would an opera that contemplates a blameless protagonist look like? (As opposed to an opera about a protagonist whose goodness is merely the refractive lens to examine a villain’s badness: Billy Budd, say.)
One answer to that question can be found in the reaction of a distinguished musician to a new work that was first presented at the Metropolitan Opera thirty-two years ago. The subject of this work was, ostensibly, the physicist and humanitarian Albert Einstein, which is one reason why a good deal of the opera consisted of the soloists and chorus intoning sequences of numbers that happen to correspond to the beats in the score—just one of the things more or less having to do with the violin-playing Einstein, a figure who famously united math and music, to which the text and music allude. (The first words you hear are “Two…Eight…Two-Three- Four…Two-Three…Two-Three-Four…Five-Six-Seven…,” a rehearsal of mathematical elements that, by the end of the work, will lead to a booming representation of another bit of science you might associate with Einstein: nuclear Armageddon.)
Because the hypnotic repetitions of the text reflected the innovative nature of the music, which itself consisted of large and small series of repeated motifs (the composer, who dislikes the term “minimalism,” prefers to talk about “music with repetitive structures”), the initial reaction of some in the audience was precisely the reaction you’d expect to a work which, instead of the linear progression from dêsis to lysis that is the sine qua non of Western drama, indulged so extravagantly in cyclical repetitions and incremental additions and subtractions. The flutist Ransom Wilson has recalled his reaction as a member of the audience:
At first I was bored—very bored. The music seemed to have no direction, almost giving the impression of a gigantic phonograph with a stuck needle. I was first irritated and then angry that I’d been taken in by this crazy composer who obviously doted on repetition. I thought of leaving.
The crazy composer in question was Philip Glass, whose career-making Einstein on the Beach, a collaboration with the stage director Robert Wilson, may be said to have represented the climax of a linear progression of his own—the abandonment of astringent academic Serialism for the eminently tonal, harmonically accessible music of his maturity, of his Second Viennese School roots for the creative possibilities he was exposed to when he worked, as a young man in Paris, with Ravi Shankar—a stint that was followed by six months of travel and study in India and North Africa. Which is to say, an abandonment, at least in some sense, of the West for the East.
Indeed, it’s striking that many of those who were in the audience that night in 1976, and during subsequent performances of Einstein, talked about their experience of the work as a kind of mystical conversion of a vaguely Eastern nature. Ransom Wilson went on to describe the effect of those many repetitions, so boring at first, as “an amazing transformation”:
Then, with no conscious awareness, I crossed a threshold and found that the music was touching me, carrying me with it. I began to perceive within it a whole world where change happens so slowly and carefully that each new harmony or rhythmic addition or subtraction seemed monumental.
In his review of Einstein for The New Yorker, Andrew Porter commented on a similarly transformative aspect of the experience of listening to Einstein:
A listener to his music usually reaches a point, quite early on, of rebellion at the needle-stuck-in-the-groove quality, but a minute or two later he realizes that the needle has not stuck; something has happened.
Whatever happened in this work, it wasn’t the kind of happening—the “doing”—that got done in traditional drama, the troubled Western arc from knotting to loosening. Instead, Glass’s music drama was “doing” something in a rather more Eastern mode—as if the mantric repetitions of the music were a kind of meditative medium (as they can indeed be, in Eastern religions) for achieving a kind of spiritual heightening: not an ideal position from which to witness Medea’s infanticide or Peter Grimes’s anguish, perhaps, but surely an appropriate state from which to contemplate other, purer characters. (Oliver Messiaen understood this too, as his own rather hypnotic, meditative Saint Francis of Assisi demonstrates.) Einstein would, in fact, be the first element of what turned out to be a trilogy of Glass operas about saintly men—the other two being Satyagraha (1980), about Mohandas Gandhi’s evolution into a champion of nonviolent political resistance, and Akhnaten (1983), about the Egyptian pharaoh who attempted to establish monotheistic worship.
What’s striking in the case of all three is the composer’s evident understanding that the traditional resources of Western drama, with its complication-driven plots, were inadequate to representing his subject, which was human goodness. (When he and Wilson first got together, in the 1970s, to discuss doing an opera about a famous man, Wilson suggested Hitler—an ostentatiously more “dramatic” figure—but Glass countered with Einstein.) “In the past, theater has always been bound by literature,” Glass, who identifies himself as a man of the theater above all—“I’d rather write an opera than a string quartet”—has justly observed. “Einstein on the Beach is not. There is no plot.” For, as we know, good men don’t tend to generate “plot.”
Not least because it is about an Indian, one whose modus operandi was, you could say, to keep repeating small and ostensibly modest acts—nothing violent, nothing “dramatic”—in the service of a great and good goal, Glass’s Gandhi opera, Satyagraha, may well be the most effectively achieved of his three musical portraits for the stage; in it, form and content are perfectly aligned. In a new co-production with the English National Opera that premièred at the Met in April—an occasion long overdue in a house whose last experience of the composer was the bloated and (truly) boring The Voyage, a work that owed its existence, you felt, to little more than the conceit that its première was meant to coincide with the 1992 quinquecentennial of the European discovery of America—the connection between Gandhi’s story and the opera’s form was perfected by a breathtakingly beautiful and deeply intelligent staging that bears out the “new” Met’s commitment to the theatrical aspect of serious music drama.
However nonlinear the traditions to which this work owes its modalities, the structure of Satyagraha is rigorously organized and deeply meaningful. The opera (whose title means “truth force,” the term Gandhi coined during his years in South Africa as a way of referring to the nonviolent protest he championed) is divided into three acts; in one way or another, all of what takes place in those three acts sheds light on the process by which he went from being a fairly timid and conventional Indian lawyer under the Raj to the man who would free India from British rule. That process unfolded, as does the action of this opera, during the twenty-one years, between 1893 and 1914, that Gandhi spent in South Africa agitating for Indian civil rights: the preparation, of course, for the great struggle to come.
The first two acts have three scenes each; the last consists of one long, varied scene. Merely the names of those three acts suggest a kind of shorthand biography of the noble man at the heart of this contemplative work. Each act is named for a historical figure closely associated with Gandhi: Act I for Leo Tolstoy, whose The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1893), Gandhi said, “overwhelmed” him and led to his first discovery of the doctrine of nonviolence and love; Act II for the Bengali writer and anti-Raj activist Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi’s near contemporary and Asia’s first Nobel laureate, with whom Gandhi had a respectful but sometimes contentious relationship; and Act III for Martin Luther King Jr., who owed his understanding of non-violent political protest to Gandhi. (“Christ gave us the goals and Mahatma Gandhi the tactics.”) These three large acts suggest, moreover, a kind of loose chronological frame for what takes place on stage during the opera (you find yourself avoiding the word “action”), since they clearly suggest a movement from Gandhi’s past intellectual debt to his present political milieu to his future legacy. (In each act of the present production, an actor costumed as the eponymous figure can be seen on an elevated niche at the back of the stage.)
Within the acts themselves historical chronology is beside the point—an aspect of the work that has, no doubt, been responsible for the lazy assertions by many reviewers that Satyagraha has no narrative structure at all, as if chronological sequence was the only structure there is. (“Mr. Glass…was not interested in fashioning a cogent narrative”: thus the Times.1 ) Rather, the progression of the three scenes in each of the first two acts represents a discernible and suggestive (and cogent) thematic progress. In each of the first scenes we witness a harrowing representation of armed conflict: a mythic battle in Act I, in which Krishna exhorts a young hero to fight despite his momentary lapse of confidence; in Act II, an ugly confrontation between Gandhi and a band of white hooligans in 1896, on his return to South Africa from India. The second scene in each act depicts a peaceful episode in which we get to see at work the creative energies of the communal movements Gandhi founded. In Act I, it’s a scene in which we see people building dwellings in 1910 at Tolstoy Farm, the commune he founded outside of Johannesburg; in Act II, we see people working on his highly influential newspaper, Indian Opinion, in 1906.
The third scene in each act climactically represents a nonviolent but forceful act of political resistance. Act I ends with “The Vow,” a stylized depiction of the September 1906 protest resolution taken by Gandhi and three thousand followers following the passage of the notorious Black Act, which sought to limit Indians’ movements by mandating identity cards and fingerprinting for all Indian residents. “Protest,” which ends the second act, shows the outcome of that earlier vow: although Gandhi and his followers had gained concessions from the British following their 1906 resolution, the British reneged on their part of the deal, and to protest this treachery Gandhi and thousands of his followers burned their government ID cards in public.
So each act stages a kind of equation: to the violent confrontation of the first scene, Gandhi opposed the peaceable cooperative efforts shown in the second scene; the product of the reaction between those two incompatible modes owed, as the third scene suggests, a little bit to both: a new kind of “war,” a nonviolent conflict that was as forceful as what you saw in scene 1 but as peaceable as what you witnessed in scene 2.
All three strands twine together to create a strong and extremely moving climax in the third act, in which elements of all three kinds of scenes—harmonious cooperation, armed conflict, the triumph of Gandhi’s new vision—come together in a representation of Gandhi’s 1913 New Castle March, an enormous and enormously successful mass protest against yet another piece of political treachery on the part of the British: the triumphant climax of Gandhi’s South African activism. Here, the principles of satyagraha are seen enacted on the stage. By this point we have seen Gandhi reacting visibly to the news of yet another British betrayal (his head is bowed in grief); Act III includes a tableau of solidarity as his satyagrahis mourn with him (they walk back and forth across the stage, unspooling hundreds of yards of shimmery, glassy tape: an arresting, symbolic enactment of their oppression), and ends with a scene of nonviolent resistance, as Gandhi’s supporters are removed, one by one, by soldiers with whom they refuse to struggle. Eventually, Gandhi is left alone on stage to sing a final aria.
And just what is he singing? Another aspect of Glass’s antitheatrical theater is how he dispenses with the usual means of indicating what’s going on—not least, dialogue. None of the words uttered by the various characters—Gandhi, his longtime wife Kasturbai, his secretary Miss Schlesen, a couple of Indian co-workers, Mrs. Naidoo and Parsi Rustomji, a European co-worker called Kallenbach, and Mrs. Alexander, the police chief’s wife who, during the first scene of Act II, rescues him from the ugly mob at the dock, brandishing her parasol like some mighty weapon—take the form of “dialogue” in any recognizable sense. Instead, Glass and his librettist, the novelist Constance DeJong, have provided fairly perfunctory directions about the historical background, setting, and staging for each of the seven scenes in the opera, clearly meant as guidelines for the stage director and designer, as for instance this set of instructions for the second scene of Act II—the scene in which we get to see Indian Opinion being produced:
Setting: 5 P.M. (orange burning sun). Part of communal residence that houses Indian Opinion. Large, working press sits center stage. Blue grass field.
Staging: Farm residents set up, issue and distribute Indian Opinion. Gandhi, appearing late in the scene, inspects their activity in the printing process. All exit, leaving press to run alone during 3-minute orchestra tutti.
Kallenbach and Miss Schlesen, joined by principals.
What the characters are actually uttering as this scene progresses—what, in fact, all the characters are uttering all the time throughout the various scenes—are passages from the Bhaghavad Gita, a text that had tremendous spiritual and aesthetic importance for Gandhi, and in which he found special significance for his life’s work. Naturally, this choice on the creators’ part may strike you as strange—the Times critic found “radical” what he referred to as “the complete separation of sung text from dramatic action, such as it is”2—but the gesture is wholly of a piece with the larger project of Satyagraha, which everywhere forestalls our expectations of what should take place in an opera house.
It is, in any case, wholly inaccurate to characterize the Bhaghavad Gita texts as “completely separate” from the action: if you actually take the trouble to read the libretto, you can see that the Sanskrit texts have been chosen with great care. What the workers in the Indian Opinion scene are saying as they fold and pass along great sheets of newspaper is a highly poetic expression of what they are, in fact, doing: “Therefore, perform unceasingly the works that must be done, for the man detached who labors on to the highest must win through.” When Mrs. Alexander berates the mob that attacks Gandhi as he returns to South Africa, she angrily decries “the devilish folk” in whom “there is no purity, no morality, no truth. So they say the world has not a law nor order, nor a lord.” In the current Met production, no translation has been provided of the entire libretto, but as the production design incorporates projected portions of the sung texts, audience members get the gist of the necessary texts in each scene.
If, indeed, what Satyagraha aims at, in both its text and its music, is a kind of meditative state of spiritual elevation that allows us to think clearly about Gandhi’s goodness and its effects, rather than to get wrapped up in his “drama,” the use of these incantatory texts only enhances our sense that we’re participating in a kind of exalting ritual, rather than spending a couple of hours at the theater. Many New Yorkers I know, opera lovers, balked at the idea of “sitting through four hours of Sanskrit”; but those same people would happily sit through a Te Deum (or bar mitzvah) while understanding little of the text. It’s when you see Satyagraha as a symbolic action that you can begin to appreciate it.
In an interesting comment he made apropos of another of his historical operas, Glass explained that he wants us to have that kind of experience—one, that is to say, which, unlike traditional theater, does not intend to ape reality, but which creates its own, new kind of reality:
I’ve never felt that “reality” was well served in an opera house. And I think this is even more true when the subject of the opera is based on historical events. Surely those with a taste for historical facts and documentation would be better served in libraries where academic research is presumably reliable and readily available. The opera house is the arena of poetry par excellence, where the normal rules of historical research need not be applied and where, in the world of artistic imagination, a different kind of truth can be discovered.
Satyagraha may be the strongest of his portrait operas precisely because its meticulously manipulated poetic text hovers at the midpoint between abstraction (a quality perhaps too heavily in evidence in Einstein, with its sometimes dauntingly abstruse metaphorical allusions to things Einsteinian—the toy trains he enjoyed as a child, for instance) and concreteness—a too-obvious connection to the events on the stage (a quality characteristic of Akhenaten, which relies on a clunky framing device—a modern-day tour guide explaining the ruins of the idealistic pharaoh’s crumbled city—to make plain the connections between its ideas and its action). That mediation between the abstract and the real is, of course, a quality of religious rituals so powerfully evoked by Satyagraha in particular.
This rigorous, ingeniously assembled spiritual work received an ideal production at the Met. The relatively young director and designer, Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, are partners in an innovative production company in England called Improbable, and they seem to have a taste for the irreverent. (They’re responsible for the Off-Broadway “junk opera,” Shockheaded Peter.) But it would be hard to think of a greater reverence than the one they have shown Glass and DeJong’s large and significant theater piece. They have clearly thought through not only the text and music but also the life of Gandhi himself, and for that reason virtually every image, every gesture that you see in this Satyagraha seems positively to resonate with significance.
Most striking is the way in which, as an homage to Gandhi’s own reverence for humble people and humble objects, almost the entire visual world of their staging is organized around two homely objects: pieces of paper and sticks. That they could make magic out of these things became evident very early on. In the scene of the mythical battle with which the work begins (“The Kuru Field of Justice”: titles projected onto the semicircular corrugated wall that was the production’s only permanent décor told you where you were in each scene), you saw at first two large groups, representing the opposing armies—and, by extension, the Indians and whites of the present-day conflict—one holding a bunch of baskets and the other holding a bunch of newspapers.
As the conflict got underway, however, these groups (who turned out to be members of the puppeteer group, Skills Ensemble, that McDermott and Crouch work with) started doing things with their bits of paper and humble baskets, twisting the former into rolls, manipulating the latter into clusters; and before you knew it, the paper had coalesced into a gigantic, vaguely arachnid monster, reaching nearly to the top of the proscenium, doing battle with an equally towering knight-like figure made entirely of baskets. The great battle announced by Krishna was symbolized by these artfully constructed champions, who fell to pieces suggestively after the musical climax, hinting at the futility of all armed conflict.
The procession of carefully paralleled scenes in Acts I and II presented many such astonishing and inventive tableaux; and yet what was so gratifying was that the eye-popping visual effects enhanced, rather than competed with, the message the text and the music were sending. Among other things, nearly all of the significant onstage action took the form of either accretions or removals of material objects—things being built up, things being stripped down—which suggests a theatrical analogue to the way in which Glass’s music achieves its effects, too.
Hence the Tolstoy Farm scene ingeniously conveyed the pleasure of cooperative labor, as the men and women manipulating bits of corrugated material back and forth across the stage were seen, suddenly, to be assembling one large dwelling place. The first scene of Act II, in which Gandhi is attacked by the mob, made use of a number of gigantic, leering papier-mâché puppet heads that marched around on sticks and stilts and clustered over the cowering Gandhi, indicating the force of European hatred for the Indian’s project. (Gandhi himself, at one point early in this scene, seemed to be represented by an endearingly awkward bird puppet, which evoked with curious accuracy his stick-legged, avian walk.)
Perhaps the most stunning example of subtle and ongoing transformations was to be found in the Indian Opinion scene. It began simply enough with a group of people kneeling on the floor passing impossibly long, continuous sheets of uncut newspaper along to one another; at a certain point these sheets were made to undulate horizontally across the width of the stage, creating an image of hypnotic power. Later, the sheets were bunched like ribbons and made into a kind of cape that trailed for a moment from Gandhi’s shoulder blades. A crucial cut was then made at the center of the bunch, creating streamers that were subsequently hooked to pulleys and wheeled heavenward, creating at that point a number of enormous streamers that hung down and—the final, heartstopping climax—onto which vertically written texts in Sanskrit, Gujarati, and Roman characters were projected, sliding down the streamers like rainwater on a windowpane. This brilliantly inventive use of humble paper and characters made you feel powerfully—and quite rightly—the pleasure and beauty of words themselves: the greatest weapon in Gandhi’s arsenal.
Many elements here, both large and small, reminded you that although Glass’s historical work isn’t bound by conventions of traditional chronology, Satyagraha as a whole does chart Gandhi’s evolution—the trajectory that is alluded to, however delicately, by the titles of the three acts. The use of costumes was subtle but crucial. We first see Gandhi lying on the ground before the Kuru Field of Justice scene, a tableau that alludes to a notorious incident that occurred soon after his arrival in South Africa, when the young lawyer, holding a first-class rail ticket, was physically pushed from a train onto the platform, a moment that marked the beginning of his outrage against racial injustice. At this point he is wearing the proper, dowdy black-and-white get-up of the Victorian lawyer, the frock coat and the well-shined shoes. As the opera progresses he gradually, almost imperceptibly sheds more and more of these clothes, so that by the end he’s the Gandhi you recognize: the slender, bird-legged figure in the white loincloth. (Also wonderfully effective were the costumes in the scene when Mrs. Alexander rescues Gandhi: lurid, vaudeville colors and horizontal stripes for the bigoted Europeans, with Mrs. Alexander and Gandhi in dazzling white, as if to suggest their moral likeness despite their ethnic and national difference.)
Acts of disrobing have, indeed, an extraordinary power in this staging. At the end of the battle scene in Act I you know that Gandhi has the support of the chorus because suddenly they take off their shoes and line them up, dozens of them, downstage—a first step, you’re meant to feel, in the process of self-revision, and perhaps self-humbling, necessary to appreciate satyagraha, to understand the necessity of abjuring violence in favor of a new kind of conflict. This symbolic gesture is amplified in the marvelously staged “Vow” scene at the end of that act, when the assembled supporters of Gandhi’s resolution to fight the British racial law start removing their outer garments and hang them on hangers that have been lowered from the ceiling. When the dozens of frock coats and ladies’ coats and shawls and veils suddenly float toward the ceiling, it somehow becomes a moment of deep emotion—it’s a stage picture that gets across the potential beauty in self-abnegation, the exaltation that lies in the abandonment of the “I” for the “we.” “Let a man feel hatred for no being…done with thoughts of ‘I’ and ‘mine,'” goes one line from the Bhaghavad Gita cited here.
Humble objects and small gestures, repeated over and over, sometimes altered, sometimes enlarged: it would be hard to think of a better way to represent, theatrically, not only what Philip Glass has done in his score for Satyagraha, but what Gandhi himself was doing in eschewing violent “action” and championing the telling gesture as the foundation of his political philosophy. The sense that you get—because McDermott’s and Crouch’s production wants you to get it—that this philosophy derives from a higher source is something that the production, like the work itself, underscores at every level. Its spare but elevated abstractions, the inventive use and reuse of ordinary objects as exalted symbols, have something of the hieratic about them. It feels like a mystery play.
That sense was, if anything, only heightened in the last scene, in which all of the elements of both the text and the production cohere beautifully. After the New Castle marchers have been removed by the soldiers, Act III (“King”) concludes with Gandhi alone, downstage. Upstage, throughout the latter part of the act, a black man playing Martin Luther King Jr. has been standing atop a lofty podium, silently and in slow motion pantomiming King’s famous gestures as he gave the “I Have a Dream” speech. (He’s facing away from the audience, as if addressing a crowd in the far distance.) This vision of Gandhi communing with his latter-day avatar is beautifully conveyed by the Bhagavad Gita text that Gandhi sings at this moment: “The Lord said, I have passed through many a birth and many have you. I know them all but you do not.” These and the other sacral lines are sung to a single musical figure—a quite beautiful ascending scale, of eight notes, in the Phrygian mode, repeated thirty times and yet never quite the same from repetition to repetition. (Once again in this piece, repetition is gripping rather than boring.)
As this goes on, the flats obscuring the back of the stage float away, revealing an expanse of improbably blue, celestial sky; the clouds that had scudded thickly across it while King was giving his speech suddenly evaporate, leaving a clear space. (Another suggestive image.) One white, rather fluffy cloud remains, and slowly, unexpectedly, this cloud starts to morph into an image of a group of Gandhi’s followers. (This is exactly per Glass’s stage direction: “Gandhi, standing down stage, turns, looking toward platform where King reappears and a moment later Satyagraha army appears behind him, up in the starry, night sky.”) Seated in serried rows like people posing for one of those Victorian group photos, the image is characterized by a stiffness meant, perhaps, to remind you of this specific moment in history to which Gandhi did, after all, belong.
And then something wonderful happened. Raising their forearms in a formal yet warm gesture—of greeting? of farewell? I couldn’t make it out—they waved right at you as you sat in the audience. At that moment I burst into tears. Perhaps because it seemed so much like a gesture of benediction, I felt as if something real had actually happened in the auditorium—that I had been blessed, maybe. Made out of insignificant things and yet achieving a large effect that exceeded, finally, the boundaries of the theater, this marvelous work made you feel that it had done something. And what is that, if not drama?