glass notes
Personal Review – Satyagraha

It has been a whirlwind of activity around the Philip Glass world in the last week.  I attended the premiere of Satyagraha Friday night and I am of course pleased to report that it was a wonderful triumph.  The Glass faithful did turn out in great number, but there were the entrenched subscribers who didn’t quite know what they were in for. Their chagrin was evident, however I recall something my Artist sister said years ago before a run of performances of Akhnaten in Boston after watching an interview with the composer on PBS. He described the premiere in Germany in 1984 where at the end of the opera, a third of the audience had left, a third was booing loudly, and a third were cheering passionately.  My sister jumped up and said "that’s when you know you’re a true Artist!"
This performance of Satyagraha was a repertory event.  This is NOT "new" music. The piece is thirty years old.  I foretold a year ago when these performances were announced that there would be bad press about the music.  I cannot comprehend the confusion and bad comprehension of the assigned critics.  It’s as if you go to go to review a new production of Don Giovanni and say: "well, the opera is by Mozart.  I just don’t like Mozart."  You know what to expect BEFORE you go. I repeat, This is not new music and in this circumstance the opera itself was not subject to review more than the performance and the new staging unless the reviewer simply was unprepared to do his or her job.  This is not to say the music is totally beyond reproach, but this is the third Glass opera which has been presented at the Metropolitan Opera.  I’m just saying can stop pretending to be surprised and shocked?
For the positive, the performance was good.  Conductor Dante Anzolini, a young dynamo, is no stranger to Glass’ music and drew the best out of the Met Orchestra which spends most of its time performing opera’s 18th and 19th Century masterworks.  The singers were of great quality, and tenor Richard Croft gave great dignity to the role and the singing. 
This was still a coup for many reasons.  For many, the idea of presenting a Glass opera as an established opera of great quality was simply unacceptable for many.  I care inasmuch as I know the truth of the matter is that the piece is of great value musically and its message incredibly well timed for our current world turmoil.  Gandhi’s message of peace, which was staged to various degrees of effectiveness was not of paramount interest to me.  Rather, what I took away was not a message of peace, but the power of the concept of truth and the power to mobilize people with an idea (which is a novelty: mobilizing people with an idea of peace and truth are not nearly as exciting to people as war and carnage).  Today, with media spin and marketing being more powerful than actual truth, the belief in truth has been something difficult to protect.  The belief in what was true used to be abundant: Satyagraha presented a message of truth as something that may have once existed, but now seems wholly foreign.   It was this mostly-musical experience (partly ceremonial theater), which persuaded me once again to abandon my cynicism and believe.  Whether authored by Wagner (redemption through love), Verdi (nobility of the common man) or Glass, there have been few profound operas composed with such conviction and sincerity.  For me there is no higher purpose in artistic pursuits.

2 thoughts on “Personal Review – Satyagraha”

  1. Many thanks for your commentary on both counts.
    First, and most important, your discussion of the message of the opera is touching and convincing. I also see your point about the enormous lack of truth in the public sphere today, where lies are expected and accepted as part of the corrupt way of doing government business. But non-violent resistance is also truthfully a far better way to achieve social justice than violence, which usually leads to cycles of more and more violence. As you point out, the opera Satyagraha does a wonderful job of holding up truth as a strategy for justice.
    On the other issue, the music and the reviewers, you are quite right that those who bemoan repetition have prejudged the score and just aren’t listening. I would also like to add something here. Although I live far from New York and can’t see the production, I was able to listen to a live broadcast of Satyagraha from the Metropolitan Opera on Monday night by getting a trial of Sirius radio. The quality of the stream was tinny but still very worthwhile. Anzolini’s interpretation is quite different from the recording, and more than 45 minutes longer. The difference in interpretation made it like a new discovery, learning new things about an old friend. Both are valid and wonderful interpretations.
    Anyway, thanks again for your comments. They were a pleasure to read and enlightening.

  2. I think the problem is not that Satyagraha gets criticised as if it’s new music, but that people don’t criticise and reassess other old works. Why not talk about the music when one goes to see Mozart or Verdi?

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