As I’ve delved deeper into the recent history of American music, I’ve become more and more fascinated about the shift—whether subtle or seismic—which occurred around 1980. I wrote about this briefly in my Time Curve Preludes liner notes; Nico Muhly has summed it up succinctly elsewhere. As a musicologist, I’ve been interrogating the concept of periodization, and can’t quite decide if it’s appropriate to declare a new period or style or something happening circa 1980, or whether that’s just a way of furthering a reductive narrative. The term postminimalism is now in the vocabulary, and I think it’s an appropriate one in order to help carve up the history of American music into chunks – I’m just not so sure how worth a task carving up history is.
But Satyagraha happened in 1980, and Satyagraha is a big deal. The Metropolitan Opera’s production, which I took in via an HD Broadcast last week, demonstrates this stunningly. From the very opening gesture, the music expresses, wondrously, what it is not. Listen to Einstein; listen to Music in Twelve Parts. The forcea driving the Glass of the ‘70s feel—and I don’t mean this at all disparagingly—mechanical, infused with a machine energy, driven and propelled forward in a kind of unstoppable onslaught.
Satyagraha is brittle; it is fragile; it is human. We begin with the human voice, a frozen melisma in Hindi, before the cellos begin to bellow their scales. It the voice of Gandhi, astonishingly personified by Richard Croft at the Met, in whose voice we hear immediately the frailty of the music and the message. In Act I, Gandhi is a mere learner, a lawyer in South Africa, and not yet the guide: “I see them here assembled, ready to fight, seeking to please the King’s sinful son by waging war.”
Einstein on the Beach begins with the drone of the organ, which plays a full iteration of its eternal, passacaglia bassline before the chorus of the Knee Play enters with their intoned numbers. Satyagraha’s vocal opening expresses all of the wonders of this subtle/seismic shift, from electric to acoustic, but also from abstract to not-quite-so-abstract. The audience may have no idea what Gandhi is saying, but there is a message.
The greatest strength of the Met’s production is that it powerfully navigates this balance of the abstract and referential, the timeless and the political. The directorial team, Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, unleash a wonderland of newspapers and giant puppets, all of which appear wholly organic – a stagecraft which feels more real than practically any other opera production I’ve seen. Despite being a lover of the music, I had never glanced at the libretto for Satyagraha before going to the movie theater; the images which McDermott and Crouch create, though, carve out a theatrical space which feels visually effortless and immediate while also seeming to allude to deeper relations to the text. The chorus, which sings as narrator and commentator, moves like an actual crowd of people, acting as a signifier for the actual bodies of the masses—inspiring and inspired by Gandhi—as well as the morals of the Bhagavad Gita, on which the libretto is based.
In an intermission interview, one of the directors mentioned the idea of corrugated iron and newspaper as symbols, or even relics, of the colonial era (one wonders how long the visual metaphor of newspapers will last; longer, we hope). Each of the three tableaux features a thematic figure, a sort of angel of history symbolizing the movement: Tolstoy in the first, Rabindrath Tagore in the second, Martin Luther King Jr. in the third. It is a tricky path between universalism and particularism, but the Met’s Satyagraha achieves it just as well as Beethoven’s Ninth. McDermott and Crouch fix the figure in the background for the entire act as a silent but active presence. In the final moments of the opera, MLK gesticulates slowly towards an unseen audience, as Gandhi repeats the same ascending scale over glassy strings: the perfect balance of the hypnotic and the political.
Which brings me to the one gaping problem of the performance I took in. The cast was spectacular, the chorus at its usual level of excellence, and the orchestra sounded superb under Dante Anzolini, though somewhat deadened by the movie theater’s lack of dynamic contrast. But the Met’s HD system is woefully inadequate for this production, and I never felt like I was really experiencing more than 70% of the events unfolding onstage (I was hoping to attend yesterday’s matinee in person but missed out). The problem is inherent in the broadcasting system, which is geared around focusing on singers for close-up shots, attempting to do filmic justice to opera. Sometimes this works: the last production I took in, Peter Grimes, actually looked better in HD than when I went afterwards in-person, because the giant Advent Calendar made it difficult to grasp the individual characters.
But Satyagraha, especially in this production, is a triptych, and like a painting, you want to be able to see the whole thing at once, always. The importance of those historical figures in the backdrop is that they are always present, like the mesmerizing music; cutting away to focus on Gandhi’s face or a swath of the chorus disrupts the hypnosis. McDermott and Crouch conceive of the stage in its whole, but the image was sacrificed for individual moments in an opera in which individuality is anathema. In Satyagraha, transformation does not occur in a single aria or dazzling moment; its beauty, like that of life, rests in gradual, imperceptible metamorphosis.
Music as a weapon
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