For the first time in my life I listened today, carefully, with full and undivided attention, to Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, in an admirable performance from the Met on its weekly Saturday broadcast. I read carefully the Met’s quite helpful materials published on its website, and followed the libretto from beginning to end. I neither had nor needed a score, because the musical matter per se was eminently graspable without the notes in front of me.
My point of view is likely to be less valuable than that of a Glass aficionado, since love is a prerequisite for understanding. Furthermore, my comments may either seem like a betrayal to those who agree with my customary aesthetic agendae, or insufficiently laudatory to those who already esteem this work. This post is likely to please no one, more’s the pity. I have found it convenient to alter the order of the pro and contra positions depending on the issue addressed.
Pro: The tripartite organization of the work in (relative to Gandhi’s era) legendary past, present, and future, coupled with associations of morning, noon, and night is elegant and dramatically effective, and gives a certain welcome narrative dimension to a work which is otherwise patently static.
Contra: I have no effective counter-argument.
Contra: The harmonies are exasperatingly simple. For three hours of music.
Pro: They have to be. It is well known that the more piquaint the spice, the more sparingly it must be used. The sequence of tonic, V/III, VI, and V presented at the beginning of the work, for instance, justifies Sam Lipman’s complaint that the harmony is the sort one learns in first year harmony, but, given the textural and durational conception of the piece, which involves lengthy non-dramatic meditations on essential philosphical themes, delievered via arpeggio and ostinato, anything fancy would quickly become unendurable. Rice, bread or beans can be taken every day. It is basic sustenance, consonant with the communal message of the piece as well as Gandhi’s specific character.
Contra: It ain’t an opera. It’s a ritual.
Pro: Alright. Tell me your objections to Mozart’s Magic Flute, your beloved Smetana’s Libuse, Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage, or even the outer acts of Wagner’s Parsifal!
Contra: I thought tu quoque arguments were out of bounds!
Pro: It has social relevance.
Contra: Yeah, so? Does Cosi fan tutte have to justify itself with a better score than Le Nozze di Figaro?
Contra: There are way too many arpeggios, and the orchestral schemes are all too similar, scene to scene. It wouldn’t hurt to have some vertical organization time to time, or to utilize the registral dimension, which is strangely absent from a work that, for better or worse, is “process” or “permutation” or “additive” music; which technique leaves the field open for registral variation, of which there is nowhere near enough. And don’t invoke the merits of “homogeneity of style”; You can achieve that while providing variety.
Pro: I have to go to the bathroom.
Pro: I’m back. And I really did have to go to the bathroom, you! What a relief it is not to have chunks of recitative, or stupid filler, or contrived arias to show off this or that singer, or a patently meaningless plot. This opera invites mediation on essential issues. And the libretto, what there is of it, is first rate. (the libretto is derived from the Bhagavad-Gita).
Contra: No opera has ever survived in the long run on the strength of its libretto, and plenty of great musical operas have survived despite, to put it charitably, defective libretti.
Pro: But this isn’t a traditional opera! That’s the whole point! Dimensions that aren’t strictly musical assume considerable importance! And compare the status of this work within its operatic orbit with certain works in the legitimate theatre. Shaw, Ibsen, and Brecht, for instance, survive nicely although none of these writers have the poetry of a Shakespeare!
Contra: That’s a weird argument. We’re not even talking about that stuff. And there is no “a Shakespeare”; there’s only one.
Pro: Let’s not get into that.
MODERATOR: Back to the topic, Gentlemen. This isn’t a political debate!
Contra: The individual parts aren’t terribly interesting; neither the singers nor the orchestral players have enough to engage them in terms of purely musical nuance, and this may mean that the finest singers, at least, (orchestral players do what they’re told, most of the time) will eschew these roles.
Pro: Who is opera for! What is it supposed to be! Do you want a return to Bel Canto! Give me a break.
Contra: Gladly. Which limb?
MODERATOR: Enough, Enough! Patricians and Populace, Peace I cry!
Pro: The “printing press” sequence is physically exhiliarating; the Phrgian scales Gandhi sings at the end, whether because of text, music, or established context, is quite moving. Unforgettable, in fact.
Contra: I agree, for today. Will I be exhiliarated and moved the next time I hear the piece? Will there be a next time? Time will tell. And let me tell you, this thing requires a lot of time!