13 December 2017

Philip Glass's Satyagraha

It gets better, it seems. At least when it comes to my opera experiences. Last month, we attended a performance of Philip Glass's Satyagraha, an opera written in 1979. This is the fourth opera I have seen so far, and I must say it is the best one to date.

See, opera is a relatively new art form for me. I only started immersing myself in it last year, when I watched Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly and La Bohème, as well as Richard Strauss's Elektra. And I must say, my fourth experience, Satyagraha, was the most mind-blowing to date, keeping me on the edge of my seat.

The opera is loosely based on the life of Mohandas Gandhi, during his stay in South Africa. This is where he started formulating his ideas on peaceful civil disobedience. The music is of course, in typical Philip Glass style, minimalist, with plenty of repeating structures. It also is very much like an oratorio, with minimal props, and abstract scenery. However, it worked. The most impressive part in my opinion were the dancers, which gave life to the whole thing. The choreography was in my view one of the most complex ones I have seen on stage, and it was executed with very amazing precision and accuracy.

For example, there was a scene when they took blackboards out on the stage, and at first people just looked like they were writing random lines and scribbles on it. But later on, those blackboards were choreographically carried to various different parts of the stage, and they were used to assemble larger pieces, which made perfect sense.

Perhaps one other reason why I appreciated this opera more than the rest is because I am slightly more familiar with the story than with the other operas I have seen. Satyagraha is an opera sung in Sanskrit, and the words are taken from the Bhagavad Gita, which in turn is a part of the epic Mahābhārata, which I have read earlier this year. So when characters like Arjuna and Krishna came to the stage, I had some context and background for it.

Overall it was a stellar performance. The singers were very malleable; Gandhi was singing even while he was being carried around the stage by a mob. The production was also a modern one; in Act 3, there was a massive protest scene where different minorities were shown to be persecuted, and the dance company made it very appropriate to our current world.

I must say that this is a piece of art that I liked enough, enough to say that I would consider seeing it again somewhere else if it is produced again, just to see how different the production would be, as well as to experience the music again. I am after all a Philip Glass fan.

So yeah, great performance, and something I would recommend. It is not the most traditional opera, but if you have enough background with the story and with Philip Glass, then I think you would be able to appreciate it as well.


  1. I find the idea of an opera based on the life of Gandhi interesting. It shows a certain... relevance, I guess. Operas are still a relatively modern art after all.

    1. Zhu,

      The opera as an art form is not that new, but the content can definitely be modern. In this case, Philip Glass is a contemporary composer, and it's just apt that he took a modern theme for this work.