Satyagraha, on stage now through November 11, 2018 at the Los Angeles Opera, is a surreal, sensory bath, rich in magical realism and stunning production design. If you’re a fan of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Philip Glass and opera, then this is a production not to be missed. Satyagraha’s outlandish, pictographic scenes are aging like wine in a cask deep within my soul – an elixir of rich consciousness that will seep into my footsteps as I walk forward through life.
As one would expect from the iconoclastic composer Philip Glass, this isn’t your grandmother’s opera. Using chaconne (a technique of repeated patterns), the music is haunting, swirling your senses into a meditative state – perfect for the intention behind the opera, which is less about telling Gandhi’s story, and more about ushering you into a subconscious sojourn into the heart of truth-force (Satyagraha) itself. Rather than watching an operatic tragedy or comedy unfold onstage, anticipating the arias and well-known melodies, Satyagraha submerges you in an ocean of Sanskrit singing, rhythmic arpeggios, Bhagavad Gita apothegms and stars lumbering in slow motion across the stage.
The marriage of myth, fantasy, giant puppets and parallel universes, combined with an incomprehensible language, lulls you into a receptive state that is far deeper than standard fare entertainment which smacks you directly in your surface-level thinking. One patron of the opera commented that it was a good opera to go to sleep by, not realizing that relaxing the senses and linear comprehension of the audience are by design. Philip Glass remarked that Sanskrit allowed the audience to “let the words go altogether [while] the weight of meaning would then be thrown onto the music, the designs and the stage action.” Satyagraha director Phelim McDermott adds that while listening to the “glacial shifts happen in the music [you] realize: that’s what Satyagraha is about.”
More than a few audience members commented on how relevant the storyline was today. During a week that saw three hate-inspired mass shootings in the U.S., the real-life retelling of a police superintendent, Mrs. Alexander, saving Gandhi from an anti-Indian mob, resonated deeply on the importance of being a truth-force. “Let a man feel hatred for no being, Let him be friendly, compassionate,” and other words of peaceful wisdom splay across the scene as the opera churns ever forward through the divine timeline of Tolstoy, Gandhi, Tagore and Martin Luther King, Jr., and their peaceful resistance to a violent and unfair status quo. The shift is toward loving kindness is, yes, glacial, but perceptible, requiring diligence, hard work and standing up to authority.
Even with the scriptures splayed prominently on the screen, Satyagraha never plays like a sermon. If you are a lover of abstract art, then the production design alone is a reason to go.
If you reserve your seat for Satyagraha expecting soaring arias and tunes to whistle on the way home, it will be a slog for you. However if you allow yourself to experience what the composer and his team intended, which might include nodding off for a second or two in this 3 1/2 hour journey into the monotonous experience of monumental change, then you’ll find the opera playing in your head and your heart for weeks and months thereafter, and possibly even in your actions for the term of your days. That is the aspiration of this opera – not just to entertain, but to make us stand up for truth. As McDermott wrote in a note on the opera, “It is through art like this that we can tell stories of what happened, not just as events, but as shifts in group perception about what is possible if people transform their state of being as well as what they do: we can be given a felt sense of what satyagraha might really mean on all of the deep levels it demands.”
In other words, Satyagraha is an operatic seduction designed to inspire one to “be the change you wish to see” – Gandhi.