"Satyagraha" at the Met

Phlip Glass's first opera proper has come at long last to the Metropolitan Opera. Here's a link to my latest WNYC FM Rockwell Matters broadcast, wherein I praise Phil and Peter Gelb and to a slightly lesser extent London's Improbable theater company, which did the staging.
April 22, 2008 3:54 PM | | Comments (4)


Non-violent political uprising never really existed even during the amazing destiny of Ghandi. We often refer to India and South Africa for its non-violent struggle to independence and power change; let us look at History in depth and one might be shocked at what he/she will find out

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. But Bob Wilson has never directed "Satyagraha." First two landmark productions were David Pountney's (the 1980 Rotterdam world premiere, which also came to NYC)and Achim Freyer's in Stuggart, gorgeously conducted by Dennis Russell Davies, which was available for a while on DVD. Phil preferred Pountney's, as simpler and truer to his scenario. Despite its Germanicisms and distortions (the final march as a failure, with Gandhi only rewarded in Heaven), Freyer's was spectacularly beautiful -- especially in the theater, as opposed to the limitations of any filmed version.

Sorry, need to clarify comments made and posted in too much haste about comparison between Robert Wilson and Improbable (my first Rockwell Matters posting, and I blow it...).

My basic point is that the difference between the cultural and political context of Satyagraha in 1980, when it was premiered, and today might be worth considering.

The seventies had been a decade of tough politics and disillusionment, and leading artists of Glass and Wilson's generation followed a larger trend of retreating into the life of the imagination rather than engage too deeply in political discourse.

Improbable, on the other hand, cut their teeth in the 90s, when collaboration and interaction began to gain serious traction, to the point where today many important artistic projects are created not by a single 'lead' artist, but by teams.

In a way, these could be seen as starkly different approaches to the issue of non-violent resistance as expressed in Satyagraha - one a search for greater peace within oneself, the other organization of group activity in such a way that it repels violence.

I saw Improbable's production twice in London. What really impressed me was the way the staging matched the music in terms of balancing spirituality and action.

At first, it seemed an unlikely pairing, Improbable's "rough" theatrical style with Glass' "holy" minimalism, and I had no idea whether the chemistry would work. But in the end I thought Improbable did brilliantly in providing the weight and scope and depth (and subtle sense of paradox) in the staging that provided the necessary foil for both music and ideas.

In this latter respect, I personally didn't find the puppetry - which, given its sheer scale, was inevitably clumsy - too distracting, indeed it may have accentuated the political friction inherent in the libretto that, say, the Wilson production might not have made so overt.

In any case, a comparison of the two is a fascinating study in different generations' approach to a contemporary masterpiece: Wilson's a cool, beautifully measured dream vision and Improbable's a vibrant canvas of sometimes messy but always fervent collective action.

Offstage, there was a neat sense of things coming full circle. The first time I saw Phelim McDermott, the Improbable co-director, on stage was in the mid-eighties in London in Julia Bardsley's production of Cupboard Man, with Glass' music an integral component. Glass was then a big influence on many up and coming artists and composers on the Fringe, especially at the Almeida, where Cupboard Man was staged a year after Glass visited the festival and two years after the Almeida collaborated with Peter Greenaway and Glass on "Four Composers".

In London last year, McDermott told the story of how he had seen Glass walking around in the West End, and had followed him for a spell, not quite able to muster up the chutzpah to introduce himself. His pursuit was short circuited when Glass entered a sushi restaurant, which only deepened McDermott's admiration, sushi being then in its exotic infancy in the West.

That this young artists' fascination, nay reverence of the older composer would lead to him staging one of the composer's greatest works at the largest opera houses in England and America twenty years of toil later made the event particularly poignant for me. Maybe there is some kind of sublime justice in this world after all!


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