Sanskrit or English? Oddly, It Doesn't Much Matter-A Postscript to My Satyagraha Post

By any measure, the libretto for Satyagraha is extraordinary. For one thing, my printout is two pages long, for an opera that takes almost three hours to perform. For another thing, it completely disdains all theatrical and operatic conventions. It is also unrelentingly philosophical. The fact that it is adapted from the Bhagavad-Gita is perhaps somewhat less extraordinary-after all, Shakespeare, Dante, Tolstoy, and the Bible have been adapted operatically.

The Met’s study guide asked the reader to consider Glass’s decision to set the original Sanskrit, rather than an English translation. I think it is a sound decision, despite the fact that it would appear to be motivated by essentially the same factors which prompted Stravinsky to set Oedipus Rex in Latin. Latin, not Greek!

I am somewhat sympathetic to the argument that operatic libretti are at the very least, less important than the music, and even sometimes close to irrelevant. But I’d like to make two caveats: firstly, irrelevant or not, the listener better know what the words mean, because despite the patent lack of literary interest in most libretti, the words do motivate the type of music a composer writes, usually. There are some exceptions; and when I say motivate, I’m not excluding the possibility of ironic or counter-intuitive settings…magnificent operas such as L’Incornazione di Poppea and The Rake’s Progress indulge in considerable irony, for instance. And, secondly, a minority of operas do really elevate the libretto to a similar status to the music. No, not Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff…again I’m thinking of Monteverdi.

Even if the language an opera is sung in is the listener’s own, this doesn’t mean the words are going to be comprehensible! So why value comprehensibility at all? Why not take if off the table entirely, as in Satyagraha, and allow the listener to absorb the full impact of words and music in their pure state? Of course you can’t have a really dramatic piece this way, although the burning of the registration cards was sufficiently dramatic for me. Glass’s opera gives you time to meditate on the words; in fact, the opera felt like an accompaniment to the listener’s spiritual or philosophical meditation, which is provoked by the meaning of the words. So Sanskrit is the better choice of language, the lines of meditation and music are not crossed. 

The use of text in Satyagraha may be unusual in the opera house, but it is de rigeur in sacred music; have you ever noticed how much music and how few words in the second half of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis? Nevertheless, Satyagraha is an opera, not an oratorio. Please do not underestimate the importance of the pantomimic dimension; like the music itself, this guides and focusses the listener’s meditation.