Opera can play many roles. It can move us through passionate, star-crossed characters who reflect our fears and trials. It can overwhelm us with magnificent set designs and music of incredible power. It can simply entertain.
But, opera does not typically inspire.
The Met is out to change that with its current production of Philip Glass' Satyagraha, the second of his three profile operas (Einstein on the Beach, Akhnaten) written in the 70's and early 80's. Satyagraha concerns itself with Mohandas Gandhi's early career in South Africa (1893-1914), where he developed his system of active, non-violent resistance that would eventually win independence for India and inspire Martin Luther King, Jr. to found this country's civil rights movement ("Satyagraha" is Sanskrit for "Truth force.") As if to drive the point home, ads have popped up all over the city asking: "Could an Opera Make Us Stand Up For the Truth?" and "Could an Opera Make Us Warriors For Peace?"
My friend Jocelyn and I were fortunate enough to attend Monday's sold-out performance, thanks to the generosity of the Met's press office. For me, this was a pretty big deal: an acknowledgment by one of the world's great opera companies that this website - and others like it - are deserving of the same consideration as the mainstream press. It also reflects general manager Peter Gelb's enthusiastic embrace of digital media, be it the Met's own blog, or the free online streaming of at least one opera each week. To say I was grateful would be an understatement.
Others have already remarked (some disparagingly) on Glass' hypnotic, trance-inducing music, which conductor Dante Anzolini takes at a significantly slower pace than the original production, now nearly 30 years old. But, if you allow Satyagraha to work on you the way Glass intends, you'll find the repeating scales and oscillating themes enter into your head sideways, refusing to leave hours, even days later. Listen to "Protest" from Act II:
The direction, by Brits Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, supplied an appropriately dreamlike atmosphere, filled with aerialists, stiltwalkers and 20-foot tall puppets made out of newsprint. They also chose not to use the MetTitles translation system, instead projecting selections from the libretto - a non-linear narrative adapted by Constance DeJong from the Bhagavad-Gita - on the set's corrugated iron walls. Each phrase was as sharp and clean as a dagger.
"When the motives and the fruits of a man's actions are freed from desire, his works are burned clean by wisdom's fire, the white fire of truth."
"If a work is done because it should be done and without thought for great benefits, then that is surrender in Goodness."
"By my creative nature, I consort with nature and come to be in time."
After nearly four hours of onstage stasis, the opera concluded with the transcendent "Evening Song": an ascending scale of eight tones repeated over and over by Gandhi (Richard Croft), standing alone at the front of the stage. He sang the words of the Hindu god Krishna, effectively making them his own:
"I come into being age after age and take a visible shape as a man among men for the protection of good, thrusting the evil back and setting virtue on her seat again."
Croft's sweet, pure tenor sailed out into the cavernous house, and as I looked up at the gilded ceiling, thinking about how I happened to be among the 4,000 souls filling the house that night, I have never felt so blessed. It was a transformative moment, plain and simple.
"I'm not sure what just happened," Jocelyn said as we were walking out. "I feel different."
While I won't claim a sudden burning desire to go out and join the Peace Corps, Satyagraha has certainly changed my perspective when it comes to the need for non-violent action in response to social injustice. As I write this, the Rev. Al Sharpton is in the final stages of mobilizing his National Action Network in a city-wide campaign of civil disobedience in response to the police acquittals in the Sean Bell murder case last week. Say what you will about Sharpton: there is no living American that I know of who has so persistently fought for those who have little-to-no voice in our society. And while Sharpton may bear little resemblance to the man known as "Mahatma" ("Great Soul"), you can bet your ass Gandhi would be marching right along side him.
(The Gandhi statue in Union Square Park)
Monday was also the final Connect at the Met event of the season, during which the Met hosts a reception on the Grand Tier prior to the performance, in this case for singles in their 20's and 30's. (They also host evenings for singles 40-and-up, as well as for members of the GLBT community.) The price, $110, would have been too steep for most 20 and 30-somethings I know (including your's truly), though that did include an orchestra-level seat, which would have cost just as much by itself.
When I arrived, I was issued a nametag and offered a choice of wine or soft drinks. One table was filled with hors d'ouvres; another was piled with hardcover copies of Arthur Herman's new book Gandhi and Churchill, free for the taking. On cocktail tables, there were brochures advertising the Met's Young Associates Program for 20 and 30-somethings, which starts at $500 ("Friend") and goes up to $2,000 ("Best Friend"). (No word yet on whether or not the development office has a "BFF" level in the works.)
Jocelyn and I met a range of people (including some who were clearly no longer in their 30's): everyone from opera aficionados, to several folks who were at the Met (or any opera) for the first time. There were doctors, lawyers, staffers from Carnegie and Lincoln Center, and enough friends-of-friends to keep the mix interesting.
There was also a desert and champagne reception during the first intermission, where we got to exchange reactions. I heard everything from "This is not an opera!" to "I don't know what's going on, but I really like it." If I were the Met, I'd be pretty happy with that.