The Metropolitan Opera’s Visually Spectacular ‘Satyagraha’ on PBS

Satyagraha will also go Live in HD to theatres around the world.

Philip Glass’s inspirational opera Satyagraha (Sanskrit for “truth force”) returned to the Metropolitan Opera stage on November 4, 2011 in the first revival of Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch’s innovative 2008 production.

On November 19 of that year the stunning production as the opera was transmitted worldwide, part of The Met: Live in HD series, which is now seen in 1,600 movie theaters in 54 countries.

Now, in April 2012, it is being telecast on PBS as part of the Great Performances series. Check your local listings for time and date.

The revival of the work comes as Philip Glass, arguably our greatest living composer, prepares to celebrate his 75th birthday in January.

Our lead photo above depicts a stunning scene from Act II of Glass’s “Satyagraha” with Rachelle Durkin as Miss Schlesen, Kim Josephson as Mr. Kallenbach, Richard Croft as Gandhi, Maria Zifchak as Kasturbai, Molly Fillmore as Mrs. Naidoo, and Alfred Walker as Parsi Rustomji. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera and T]taken during the rehearsal on November 3, 2011 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

This is not the usual opera. For one thing, even though it is sung in Sanskrit, and there are numerous projections used, there are no supertitles per se. Some phrases, words and ideas are visualized instead, leading to a unique experience of the opera form. It is as much ritualistic pageant as it is drama, and more of a meditation than a plot driven opera. The work’s central theme may be pacifism, but anyone who is familiar with Gandhi and other forces for change know that there is no shortage of violence and conflict in that struggle.

Glass’s hypnotic and deeply moving opera, which earned exceptional praise in its Met premiere, is based on Mahatma Gandhi’s early life in South Africa, where he developed the revolutionary philosophy of non-violent resistance that continues to be used in protests around the world. “Almost all the techniques of protest—now the commoxn currency of contemporary political life—were invented and perfect by Gandhi during his South Africa years,” Glass has said.

In a turn of good luck, the first revival of Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch’s critically acclaimed production will feature the original cast of the opera’s Met premiere. McDermott and Crouch’s production uses a combination of large-scale puppetry, sets made of materials such as corrugated metal and newspaper, and projected supertitles to immerse the viewer in Glass’s poetic world. Conductor Dante Anzolini will lead a cast that features Richard Croft, reprising his critically acclaimed interpretation of Gandhi.

Satyagraha is divided into three acts, each inspired by a major historical figure: the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, the Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore, and the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. The plot of the opera follows Gandhi through his formative years as a young attorney in South Africa, where his firsthand experience of racial inequality inspired him to create the movement of non-violent resistance that would define his life and work. The Sanskrit libretto, by Glass and Constance DeJong, is taken from the Bhaghavad Gita. Croft will be joined by two of the other leads of the Met premiere production, Rachelle Durkin as Miss Schlesen and Alfred Walker as Parsi Rustomji, and Kim Josephson will sing the role of Mr. Kallenbach.

The opera is the second part of Glass’s famous trilogy of operas about important historical figures, which also includes Einstein on the Beach (1976) and Akhnaten (1983). Satyagraha is the second Glass opera to be performed at the Met, following The Voyage, a Met commission that premiered in 1992.

Conductor Anzolini is a leading interpreter of Glass’s work; in addition to the Met premiere of this opera, he has conducted critically acclaimed performances of The White Raven in Lisbon and at the Lincoln Center Festival; Symphony No. 5 in Brussels and at the Kennedy Center; Akhnaten at Opéra du Rhin in Strasbourg, France; and the European premiere of Symphony No. 8 with the Bruckner Orchestra Linz in Austria.

In addition to singing the central role of Gandhi in the Met premiere of Satyagraha, Richard Croft has sung numerous roles at the Met, including Loge in the 2010 new production premiere of Das Rheingold, Cassio in Otello, Count Almaviva in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Ferrando in Così fan tutte, and Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni.

Durkin, a graduate of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, debuted in the Met premiere of Wolf-Ferrari’s Sly in 2002 and most recently sang Norina in Don Pasquale during the 2010-11 season. Walker’s Met repertory includes roles in Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mktsensk, Ravel’s L’enfant et Les Sortilèges, and the Met premiere of Busoni’s Doktor Faust.

Kim Josephson’s 244 performances with the Met have included the new production premieres of La Fanciulla del West, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Otello, Andrea Chénier, and Carmen, and the Met premieres of Strauss’s Capriccio and Bolcom’s A View from the Bridge.

Berkshire Venues and Performance Details

The November 19 matinee of Satyagraha begins at 12:55 pm and will be hosted by bass-baritone Eric Owens. The running time is 3 hours and 45 minutes, including two intermissions. Encore screenings are slated for Wednesday, December 7, at 6:30 p.m. local time. In the Berkshires the Live in HD telecasts can be viewed at the Mahiawe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, the Beacon Cinema in Pittsfield, and the Clark Art Museum in Williamstown. The Mahaiwe offers a ticketed pre-opera lecture beforehand with Scott Eyerly at 11:00 am as well as reserved seating for the opera itself. www.mahaiwe.org The other venues are general admission.

For information on screenings beyond the Berkshires go to www.metopera.org.

A scene from Act II of Philip Glass's "Satyagraha." Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Synopsis of Satyagraha by composer Philip Glass

ACT I (TOLSTOY). Scene 1. The Kuru Field of Justice A great battle is impending between two royal families, the Kuruvas and the Pandavas. At a signal from the king, the trumpeter blows his conch, signaling to the waiting armies assembled on the sacred plain. Warriors and chieftains blow their battle shells announcing their readiness to fight. Seeing the battle set, Prince Arjuna realizes that his relatives and friends fight on both sides. Filled with compassion, he speaks to Lord Krishna and asks him for guidance. Krishna instructs him to be wise in matters of death and duty: “Hold pleasure and pain, profit and loss, victory and defeat to be the same: then brace yourself for the fight. So will you bring no evil on yourself.” Gandhi enters and draws a parallel between the mythic confrontation and the present one.

Scene 2. Tolstoy Farm (1910) Gandhi has initiated the first collective action among South Africa’s Indian residents. There are only a handful of Satyagrahis pledged to resist the Europeans’ racial discrimination. No one knows how long the struggle will last, but the Satyagrahis progress toward securing an immediate goal with the establishment of Tolstoy Farm. Here, all families live in one place, becoming members of a cooperative commonwealth, where residents are trained to live a new, simple life in harmony with each other. Everything from building to cooking to scavenging is to be done with their own hands. The building of the farm draws everyone into an active involvement with the Satyagraha ideal—“a fight on the behalf of Truth consisting chiefly in self-purification and self-reliance.” Weighing the ideas of contemplation and action, Gandhi states his view that work is preferable to idleness, provided one’s motives are freed from the taint of desire: “Between theory and practice, some talk as they were two—making a separation and a difference between them. Yet wise men know that both can be gained in applying oneself whole-heartedly to one.”

Scene 3. The Vow (1906) The British government proposes a legal amendment for complete re-registration and fingerprinting of all Indians—men, women and children. They would be required to carry resident permits at all times, police could enter homes to inspect for certificates, and offenses would be punishable by fines, jail, or deportation. The proposed Black Act becomes the occasion for a large rallying of the community around a specific issue. At a public meeting attended by more than 3,000, a resolution is drawn up stating that all will resist the Act unto death. Suddenly, the Satyagrahis have come to a turning point. The life and death terms of the resolution call for a step beyond ordinary majority vote, and all in attendance listen to the speakers explain the solemn responsibility of taking the individual pledges. Only a vow taken in the name of God will support an individual’s observance of the resolution in the face of every conceivable hardship, even if he were the only one left. “For nothing on earth resembles wisdom’s power to purify and this a man may find in time within himself, when he is perfected in spiritual exercise… If a work is done because it should be done and is enjoined by Scripture and without thought for great benefits, then that is surrender in Goodness.”

Act II of Philip Glass's "Satyagraha" with Richard Croft (center) as Gandhi. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Act II “Tagor e” Scene 1. Confrontation and Rescue (1896) Gandhi has spent six months in India to inform people in his homeland of the settlers’ conditions in South Africa. Thousands of Europeans have read of his speeches and meetings in somewhat exaggerated accounts in South African newspapers, and there is a wave of opposition when Gandhi returns to Durban. Already angered by the way he has exposed events to the world, the Europeans are further enraged by Gandhi’s intention to bring back hundreds of Indian immigrants. If the government will not prevent them from landing, then the Europeans will take the law into their own hands. Growing larger in numbers and more violent in actions, the excited crowd pursues Gandhi on the long walk through town. A European supporter, the wife of the superintendent of police, opens her umbrella for Gandhi’s protection and walks by his side, leading him to safety. She declares Gandhi’s opponents fools, corrupted by pride and hypocrisy.

Scene 2. Indian Opinion (1906) The weekly publication of Indian Opinion is central to the Satyagraha movement’s activities, and the paper progressively reflects the growth of its principles. Refusing all advertisement, the publication is freed of any outside influence and becomes the mutual responsibility of those working on the paper and the readers whose subscriptions supply the only source of financial support. Indian Opinion openly diagnoses the movement’s weaknesses as a means for eradicating them. Though this keeps Gandhi’s adversaries well informed, it more importantly pursues the goal of real strength. Setting a standard with a strong internal policy, Indian Opinion informs the local and world community and becomes a powerful weapon for the struggle. At its height, there is an estimated readership of 20,000 in South Africa alone. Gandhi’s wife and his associates restate the importance of working for a cause rather than for one’s own gratification. By setting a good example, one inspires and leads others.

Scene 3. Protest (1908) Movement leaders have been sentenced to jail for refusing to leave South Africa. The community resolves to protest by filling up the jail. Getting themselves arrested for various offences, the number of Satyagrahi prisoners rises to 150 within a few days. The government proposes a settlement: if the majority of Indians undergoes voluntary registration, they will repeal the Black Act. After fulfilling their part of the bargain, the community is stunned to learn that the Black Act is to be put into effect anyway. Ready to resume the struggle, Satyagrahis issue their own ultimatum: if the government will not withdraw the act, Indians will burn their certificates and accept the consequences. On the day of the ultimatum’s expiration, Gandhi learns of the government’s refusal while conducting a prayer meeting before the burning of the registration cards. The certificates are set ablaze. Satyagraha now has its baptism of fire. Gandhi preaches about the importance of bearing no hate toward anyone: “The Lord said: Let a man feel hatred for no being, let him be friendly, compassionate; done with thoughts of ‘I’ and ‘mine’, the same in pleasure as in pain, long suffering.”

Richard Croft as Gandhi in a scene from Act III of Glass's "Satyagraha." Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Act III “Ki ng” New Castle March (1913) With two racially discriminatory laws, the government is effectively controlling the influx of new Indian settlers and keeping the old class of indentured laborers under its thumb. Both the Three Pound Tax and the Asiatic Immigration Law are in effect as the great Indian leader, Shree Gokhale, makes a tour of South Africa and secures from the government a public promise for their repeal. The government’s breach of that promise gives Satyagraha an opportunity to include new objectives in its fight for truth and, in turn, to increase its strength in numbers. The miners in New Castle are selected to be the first drawn into the expanding struggle, and a deputation travels there, organizing a strike in sympathy with the movement. It is also decided that striking miners and their families should leave the homes provided by mine owners and join the Satyagraha army. Led by Gandhi, they march the thirty-six miles to the Transvaal border. If arrested at this check point, the army of 5,000 would flood the jails, incurring heavy expenses and difficulties for the government. If allowed to proceed to Tolstoy Farm, they would prolong the strike, conceivably drawing all of the 60,000 laborers affected by the tax law into the struggle. In either event, they would be bringing strong pressure for repeal, all within the dictates of Satyagraha. The army is instructed to stand any test without opposition, and their movements are openly announced to their adversaries—“as an effective protest against the Minister’s breach of pledge and as a pure demonstration of our distress at the loss of self-respect.”

Talking to his followers about the soul’s return to Brahma, Gandhi proclaims: “The Lord said, I have passed through many a birth and many have you, I know them all but you do not. Yet by my creative energy, I consort with Nature and come to be in time. For whenever the law of righteousness withers away and lawlessness arises, then do I generate myself on earth. I come into being age after age and take a visible shape and move a man with men for the protection of good, thrusting the evil back and setting virtue on her seat again.”

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