Opera Australia’s Autumn Season in Melbourne opened on Saturday May 13 with a concert performance of Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha (1979) in Hamer Hall. Set to a libretto compiled by the composer and author Constance DeJong from short excerpts taken from the Bhagavad-Gita, it forms the second of a trilogy of “Portrait” operas, the other two being Glass’s breakthrough work for the stage, Einstein on the Beach (1975), and Akhnaten (1983).
Glass conceived all three primarily as presentations of images and music, and not as sung drama in the more traditional operatic sense. This in part explains why the libretto in this case is in Sanskrit, and why the original production of Satyagraha did not provide surtitles.
The opera nonetheless does proffer a basic narrative frame, albeit neither a very historically or chronologically precise one. Each of the opera’s three Acts references events that occurred in Gandhi’s early years in South Africa when he transformed from an English-trained, suit-wearing lawyer to the radical ascetic and political activist we now remember. Each is also named after three related historical figures: Leo Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore and Martin Luther King, which also suggests that the three Acts represent aspects of the past, present, and future (respectively) of Gandhi’s ideas about non-violent resistance in particular.
The composer’s so-called “minimalist” musical style also invites us to experience the drama of opera in a novel way. Here repetitions of deliberately simple musical patterns draws us into a meditative mode of listening that is focused more on the process of the music unfolding rather than what it might be seeking to represent on stage, or where it might be trying to lead us in a formal sense. In this respect it has more than a passing similarity to certain forms of commercial popular music (such as electronic dance music), which may also help to explain why Glass’s music has come to appeal to audiences far beyond traditional classical music lovers.
In addition, the music’s ritualistic qualities suggest to us the possibility that Gandhi’s teachings and tactics are not just historical and contingent but also contain ideas of universal and transcendent value. When Glass wrote his opera (and indeed when, shortly after, Richard Attenborough also made a epic biographical film about Gandhi) this may not have been such a radical idea. In our own age of identity politics, our understandable scepticism towards any “great man” view of history, and in the face of our tendency to accuse anyone who might wish to incorporate non-Western ideas into Western thought of “cultural appropriation”, however, it now appears much more subversive.
In any event, one thing we can say for certain about the music is that its simplicity is deceptive. It is in fact very demanding to perform. Here, Tahu Matheson effectively and accurately conducted a top-form Orchestra Victoria (minus brass and percussion, which Glass did not use owing to their association with military music), who were more than able to meet the technical, physical and mental challenges Glass’s score presents. The excellent cast was led by Indian-born Australian tenor Shanul Sharma (Gandhi), for whom performing the role was obviously a labour of love. While his voice might not have quite the non-operatic, otherworldly, character that Glass once stated he was looking for, this was a fine performance from one of the company’s rising young stars. Other standout performances included those from Rachelle Durkin (Mrs Schlesen) – here reprising a role she has also sang to acclaim at the Met, Olivia Cranwell (Mrs Naidoo), and Andrew Moran (Mr Kalienbach). The chorus, well-prepared by Chorus Master Paul Fitzsimon, was also commendably accurate and energetic.
Director Andy Morton gave the whole presentation a degree of dramatic action, or at least as much as he could midst a large orchestra and music stands, and Jason Morphett also provided some subtle lighting effects. In the end (indeed literally), however, the lack of staging was the big drawback to this otherwise successful and worthy undertaking. The opera’s final scene, here especially movingly sung by Sharma, is only the more so when the connection to Martin Luther King, Jr is made explicit on stage. We are thereby not just reminded of the shared fate that awaited both men, but also (and just as importantly) of the implicit challenge they left us to heed their message, and take up their mantle, anew.
Peter Tregear reviewed “Satyagraha”, presented by Opera Australia at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall, on May 13, 2023.