Once you get used to the experience, it does not matter very much that the libretto of "Satyagraha" is entirely in Sanskrit -- or that the cast of characters includes Lord Krishna, Tolstoy and Martin Luther King, as well as Mahatma Gandhi, who is the primary subject. The latest opera by Phlip Glass does not depend primarily on logic or instant intelligibility to make its points -- and in the long run, it makes them very effectively.
An enthusiastic audience gave the opera three standing ovations Wednesday night at its American premiere near Buffalo, N.Y. -- an event long-hearlded and eagerly awaited after its nine sold-out performances last year in Europe. It is likely to get similar reactions in later productions, which will probably be frequent.
"Satyagraha" ("truth power," with overtones of "love power") is the name Gandhi gave to his system of nonviolent civil disobedience. The subject of the opera is his discovery and development of that principle during his years (1893-1914) among the Indian settlers in South Africa, when he encountered and struggled against virulent forms of racial discrimination. Most of the story is told in quite literal terms -- not in the libretto, which is taken entirely from the text of the ancient Indian epic, the Bhagavad-Gita, but in the stage action, which combines elements of tableau, ballet and pantomime, with the ancient text serving as an oblique commentary on the modern actons. Strictly speaking, "Satyagraha" is more like an oratorio with tableaux than an opera, but such distinctions seem academic in the face of the work's sheer power.
In harmony with his subject, Glass has adopted a new, nonviolent style in his music. Earlier works, including his much-discussed opera "Einstein on the Beach," tended to overpower and hypnotize the audience. He relied heavily on amplification, and he characteristically used a small, simple, fast-moving motif over and over, introducing variations very gradually, almost imperceptibly, in what sounded like a compulsive pattern of repetition.
In "Satyagraha," the style is still perceptibly that of Philip Glass -- particularly in the instrumental writing and some of the choruses -- but there has been a tremendous broadening of the old framework. The writing is much more melodic and lyric, closer to traditional vocal styles, but simpler than most operatic music since the Baroque period It is still anything but dissonant, and the motifs are still often arpeggio triads -- the notes of a basic chord spread out like a melody. But the tempo is generally broad, the melodies more spacious, the pace of development and variations closer to the classical music norm. For this work, he has abandoned his usual ensemble (essentially an expanded rock group) and written for a modified symphony orchestra: strings and woodwinds, without brass or percussion and with an electronic organ used something like the harpsichord in a baroque orchestra.
"Satyagraha" differs from Glass' earlier work in its carefully structured, integrated dramatic power even more than in its music. This is particularly true in the second act, which begins with Gandhi being pursued and beaten by an angry mob and rescued by Mrs. Alexander, the wife of the superintendent of police. The act climaxes with a mass burning of identification cards -- passive resistance to a British regulation that required all Indians in South Africa to be fingerprinted and to carry their identification cards at all times. To those who have not read the plot synopsis, some of the subtler points might be lost -- but the basic impact comes across strongly, partly because of fine stage direction (part of an excellent overall performance) and partly because the act contains such curious similarities to the American passive resistance movement in the 1960s.
There is less dramatic coherence in the first act, but it establishes the work's basic themes. On a high platform at the back of the stage, Tolstoy sits working at his desk throughout the act, a silent observer whose presence is justified because he was a major influence on Gandhi's thinking. Another major influence, the Hindu religion, is represented in a long dialogue between Krishna and a young warrior, Prince Arjuna. "Consider pleasure and sorrow, profit and loss, conquering and being conquered as something equal; then prepare for the struggle. So you will not cause yourself any harm," Krishan tells Arjuan. Ganhi later echoes these lines, though the fact may be missed by most people seeing the opera for the first time.
In the third and last act, Martin Luther King is a silent witness on the tall platform, like Tolstoy in the first and poet Rabindranath Tagore in the second, but King is more active than the other spectators, and he becomes symbolically involved in the play. Throughout the act, King is standing at a rostrum, his back to the auditorium, giving a silent speech to an invisible audience; after a while, he takes off his jacket, and then he rolls up his sleeves. While this is happening. Gandhi on the main stage is organizing a mass protest march and running into opposition from the police. Gradually, the police infiltrate Gandhi's ranks, overpower his followers one by one and carry them away, until finally he is alone. Then the lights go up in the back, and Gandhi's followers are seen as King's audience. Suddenly, King is shot and the scene freezes for the final curtain, with King's followers registering shock and perhaps a loss of the nonviolent orientation.
The symbolism is very powerful. The text of this act discusses reincarnation among other subjects, and part of the action certainly portrays King as spirtually a reincarnation of Gandhi.
The opera's American premiere took place about 100 yards inside the United States -- at Artpart on the Niagara River, near Buffalo but closer to Canada. The 200-acre park is located in the village of Lewiston, about seven miles downtown from Niagra Falls, overlooking a river still angrily turbulent from its spectacular tumble a few minutes earlier. Artpark is partially upstate New York's ansewe to Wolf Trap, but it engages in many other activities. The Glass premiere took place amid a program of craft demonstrations that range from cooking to ceramics, artists-in-residence at work on a variety of strange and wonderful outdoor sculptures, storytelling and other performing arts. The Glass premiere fit snugly into a performing arts schedule that included Victor Borge doing comedy at the keyboard the night before and Alberta Hunter singing jazz and blues the night after.
Glass appeals to a braod-spectrum audience that might have included fans of either Borge or Hunter -- or of the musical comedy coming in next week or the jazz festival scheduled for late August. E is liste d among the classical composers in the Schwann Record and Tape Guide, but his music cuts across the lines that usually divide classical, rock and pop music. Whatever you call it, it is easy listening -- particularly in "Satyagraha," which marks a significant broadening of his style.