Saturday, May 17, 2008



Radio New Zealand Concert networkSunday 18th of May 2008 at 3 pm

LIBRETTO (not available)

This is an opera about Gandhi (note the spelling and accept no substitutes; don't let the H wander). Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi (1869-1948).

Satyagraha is a Sanskrit word (according to Gandhi, made up of satya 'truth' and agraha 'firmness'; but I thought the second part was graha 'seize' [like grasp and grab and grip], and hence 'holding truth'); anyway, it is applied to his method of non-violent protest and resistance against unjust force. So there are no brass or percussion instruments in the orchestra (not even the required conch shell trumpets!).

If you work your way through all the material hiding under those blue words, above, you will have everything you need to 'understand' the opera. But can you 'stand' the music? The technical term for it is 'minimalist'. The music-lover's word for it is 'repetitive' (that is the one that Helen hurled at it after hearing it out in the garden for a couple of hours; the garage door has been wide open, and the loudspeakers in that auditorium have been flooding our sheltered street and frightening the traffic up there on the highway).

Of course, Philip Glass hates being called a 'minimalist' (lumping him with Steve Reich and John Adams), but he could fix that by ceasing to compose minimalist music. He describes his work as "music with repetitive structures", so he has admitted that it merits the stricture 'repetitious'.

For the rest, we have our roving reporter's account of this production, and she is Gomathy Venkateswar.

"I have seen a fabulous opera called "SATYAGRAHA", at the MET, directed by the composer Philip Glass, whose music many of you may be familiar with. But the story is totally on a new track that is relevant and hits you on the head and heart with piercing force. It recaptures the years of Gandhi(our National Father) in South Africa fighting against the injustice of the apartheid in the last years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th.

"Satyagraha or"Fight for Justice" was born in the soil of Africa and used by Gandhi later in India to fight against the British through years of Nonviolent Civil Disobedience, that won for the country its final freedom from the colonial masters who in their final act of vengeance at having to part with the JEWEL IN THE CROWN, caused the Partition of India that had close to 2 million people fleeing terror and communal hatred that has lingered in the country ever since.

"The Opera was brilliant as it juxtaposed Gandhi in the same position as Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra from the mythical and yet sacred text of the Hindus THE MAHABHARATA, from which sprang the 18chapters of the Bhagavad Gita or the song celestial where Lord Krishna advices Arjuna and exhorts him to take to arms to fight injustice and seek the Path of Dharma or Spiritual Justice that would end in Salvation for all. Gandhi too is on the battlefield before he goes on to doing the Civil Disobedience Struggle for the Blacks and Coloureds in South Africa, and the Verses sung inthe Opera are stanzas from the Bhagavad Gita sung in Sanskrit (though hardly recognizablle to the audience as being Sanskritic, it could
have been Russian for all that mattered).But Philip Glass was taking no short cuts. He researched every thing possible to make it authentic and got the US's top Sanskrit Scholar Sidney Pollack to give the verses from the GITA that were sung by Gandhi and by the other characters in the Opera, meaning and relevance. The Singing by two tenors and 2 Sopranos was
masterly. Gandhi's tenor character was so mellifluous.

"It was a sparse and stark background, and the stage hands became performers as well as they assumed the personae of puppets who performed acts on stilts and as shadows as they removed props or became gigantic figures representing mythical creatures.

"It was indeed a superb show lasting for 4 hours with 2 intermissions. But the MET was packed with a discerning intellectual audience who did not stir but paid close attention to the entire performance with rapt attention.

"There were 3 curtain calls before the final cutain came down. I was indeed privileged and lucky to have been one of the audience on the night of 22nd April 2008."

Thanks, Gomathy. For my part, I will say that the concept behind this opera appeals to me immensely. I am a great admirer of the Indian epics, having translated parts of the Bhagavad Gita, for example, for my own purposes. I once had a nice Hindu experience when I saw the movie Gandhi in Auckland; emerging from the theatre on a Friday evening with Indian music ringing in my ears, I heard Sanskrit being chanted on Queen Street; a band of Hare Krishna devotees were moving down the hill, endeavouring to drown out the Christian open air campaigners.

The recording I own (box of three black discs) has a New York City Opera performance (CBS). When I was persuaded to buy it in Marbek's shop, he told me people used it for meditation. Yes, Philip Glass had studied with Ravi Shankar. And Martin Scorsese chose him to compose the music for Kundun (the biography of the Dalai Lama), which I looked at today to see how it affected me; the traditional Tibetan instruments are there and their style can be repetitive, but Glass rubs it in; still he was rewarded with awards for it.

I'll tell you one thing that annoys me about the libretto: the crazy system for transcribing the Sanskrit. Because English has absolutely no consistency in its spelling, Srii Bhagavan uvaacha (The glorious Lord spoke) is set before the reader as Sre Bhu-gu-van oo-va-chu. I have doubled the vowels to show lengthening, and I do the same in my own fonetic sistem foor Ingglish: banaana. Why can't or won't the English write their language with consistent fonetic spelling, like Finnish and Maaori?!

Well now, I also like the idea of Glass's Akhnaten (the Pharaoh who set up solar monotheism in ancient Egypt, for a while, but after him Tutankhamen restored polytheism); but again the music can drive one to distraction.

All right, Satyagraha allegedly has 'lyricism' (tunes?); but it probably works better (as with Kundun) when you are looking at it, and not concentrating on the music.

1 comment:

  1. Brian,

    Nice to meet you and many tanks for your bloggs. I liked them very much. Again many thanks.

    Avi Ch. F. Weizmann ( Francis),
    Israel and SouthAmerica