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.)