So all operas are about a crusty old man being outwitted as he tries to marry his ward? Certainly not Philip Glass’s Satyagraha of 1980, which features a factual hero in the form of Mahatma Gandhi; political struggle as it explores the associated movement for freedom and independence, and philosophy as it links this peaceful fight with centuries old religious teachings.
Although Satyagraha (which roughly translates as ‘insistence on truth’ and describes nonviolent resistance) is fairly accessible to first-time opera-goers, it is not necessarily self-explanatory. Unlike virtually every other English National Opera production, it is performed not in English but Sanskrit, and without prior knowledge the scenes may not make much sense. Both difficulties can be resolved, however, simply by investing in a programme, which contains a detailed synopsis and full translation.
Each of the seven scenes meditates on an event related in one way or another to India’s civil resistance movement, and in this 2007 production Glass’s minimalist music (a term that admittedly the composer hates) combines with truly innovative staging, courtesy of Improbable director Phelim McDermott.
Alongside excellently choreographed movement and brilliant lighting designs, there are stunning visual effects such as gods and animals emerging out of wicker constructions, and huge newspaper-faced men being operated by puppeteers a fraction of their size. The details are also very telling so that one scene sees people abuse Gandhi (Alan Oke proving brilliant as both a singer and actor) by throwing balls of newspaper at him, while the next focuses on Indian Opinion, a paper that he founded to further the cause.
Although the pace is hardly breakneck, the musical and visual elements work together to ensure that the experience becomes hypnotic rather than tedious. You may need to enter in the right frame of mind to get the most out of Satyagraha, but for those inclined, or simply willing, to involve themselves in such an extraordinary adventure, the rewards should be very high.
Until 8 December (six performances) at the London Coliseum, Saint Martin’s Lane, Charing Cross, WC2N 4ES with start times of 15.00 and 19.00. For tickets (£12-£99) visit the English National Opera website.
Londonist received a complimentary ticket and programme from the ENO press team.