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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Opera Review: Protest and Survive

The Metropolitan Opera revives Satyagraha.
Peaceful journey: Richard Croft as Mohandis K. Gandhi in Satyagraha.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.
Talk about good timing.

No one could predict that the Metropolitan Opera's scheduled revival of Satyagraha, Philip Glass' 1980 opera retelling incidents in the life of Mohandis K. Gandhi, would coincide with Occupy Wall Street. Based in lower Manhattan, the Occupy movement models itself on the Mahatma's principle of "truth-force", or non-violent protest, that gives the opera its title.

With a libretto built from the text of the Bhagavad-Gita, (The Song Of God, a 700-verse Hindu scripture) Mr. Glass' opera may seem impenetrable. It's sung entirely in Sanskrit. But this brilliantly realized production by Phelim McDermott uses puppets, projections and props (made from newspaper and cellophane tape) to present the story in a simple, compelling way.

The plot of Mr. Glass' opera is not a conventional biography of the political and spiritual leader. It opens on the Kuru Field of Justice, chronicling a confrontation between Hindu gods. From there, the story movies from Africa to Asia in a non-linear fashion, charting Gandhi's journey back and forward through time. The opera culminates in the burning of Indian registration cards and culminates in the New Castle March.

Richard Croft combines his powerful tenor voice and skilled acting to inhabit the part of Mr. Gandhi. Although the nature of the text prohibits dialogue in the manner of a conventional biography, the singer uses movement and gesture to convey the story. He makes a physical transition as well, from suited, briefcase-toting lawyer to the more familiar figure of the Mahatma, clad in a homespun dhoti and carrying a staff.

The chorus takes a central role in this opera. The men of the ensemble are chilling in the second act, as they play thugs who try to stone Gandhi. Over a simple ostinato, they sing with monotone, mocking laughter. Mr. Glass contrasts this with the soaring, compassionate melodies of  Miss Schlessin (Rachelle Durkin) a Victorian lady who comes to Mr. Gandhi's defense.

The simplicity and brilliance of this production are a real pleasure. Using plain materials and their wits, the prop department built huge, monstrous figures from papier-mâché. (The puppets are designed by Julian Crouch and operated by the Skills Ensemble.) Rusty slabs of sheet metal come to life and become skyscrapers. In Act II, newspapers are crumpled by choristers: they become a shower of stones hurled by an angry mob. And in the next scene, they're simply...newspapers, flowing across the stage in an endless river of information.

The most stunning effect: lines and lines of tape are strung taut across the huge Met stage. When hit with blue lights, the tape looks like an energy field of some kind. Eventually the tape is bundled, and soars above the stage like a huge abstract bird. The wide-open stage is a a parquet of newspapers, a chronicle of the 20th century to set the action (or inaction) against. The corrugated wall that surrounds it represents industrial oppression and the poor status of Mr. Gandhi's first followers.

The final scene of the opera ends with Mr. Croft, alone on the stage in his dhoti. He sings a simple, repeated line, as a figure representing Martin Luther King gesticulates in the background. Mr. King and Mr. Gandhi both used passive resistance in their fight for freedom. As the United States wakes up from its decade-long economic nightmare, those who would lead the fight for economic justice would do well to experience Satyagraha.

For more about Satyagraha and a recording recommendation, visit our Metropolitan Opera Preview.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.