Friday, February 26, 2010

Night at the Gandhi Opera

There were three very good reasons for Sid and I to attend Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha, which opened at the English National Opera last night. It was based on Gandhi’s years in South Africa, where he developed, honed and polished his philosophy of non-violent protest.

First, as Indians, Sid and I are well-versed with the life and times of Gandhi. So for once, we would already be one up on the rest of the English audience as far as cultural references went. (Besides, it meant we would not have to buy the booklet explaining the Acts. A few pounds saved there!)

Second, the opera was sung in Sanskrit. And even though 15 years of complete non-usage has rendered my Sanskrit extremely rusty, I felt my chances with Sanskrit were far better than Italian or French.

Also, Sid has a great pair of opera glasses which he, very disrespectfully, has been using to watch cricket. I felt we needed to restore its dignity.

Besides, I must admit that somehow felt that if I watched an opera about a subject close to my heart – Gandhi and his philosophy of non-violent protest – then all that high-pitched singing would transform into sweet music and I would find myself moved to tears. Thus, I would prove that I am truly cultured ala Julia Roberts of Pretty Woman.

(Sorry, I could only find an Italian version of the youtube clip. But I am sure you got the point.)

It didn’t work.

Despite my best efforts to connect with the music, it just seemed like a lot of dignified and pious howling. Besides, it might as well as have been Italian or French for all I got of it. The music seemed to be based on mainly on repetitions. But apparently, that was a part of its magic, it was minimalist. Besides, there were "slowly metamorphosisng textures" to it according to The Independent, but Sid and I were too untutored to get them. And though the music seemed very heavy to Sid and I, it was only because of our inability to appreciate its “nobility, seriousness and purity”, as the NYT put it.

If I still enjoyed my night at the opera, it was mainly because of the totally trippy stage activity that accompanied the singers. The act was full of acrobats, aerialists, gigantic puppets, and lots and lots of innovative use of newspapers. At one point, as Gandhi sang away contemplatively in front behind him a huge six-armed puppet made out of newspaper stabbed an equally mammoth puppet made out of wicker baskets with wooden swords (see the rather sad image above).

Watching the mayhem through Sid’s excellent opera glasses thoroughly restored the pair’s respectability.

Note to Girish: The opera was a part of a trilogy on millennium men by Glass. The other two are Einstein and the Egyptian Pharoah Akhnaten. I am guessing Glass hasn't read your blog entry on the great pharoah .


Lex said...

What a crazy combination - Glass and Ghandi. Lauch has some of Glass' music & I am already attuned to its repetitive slowly evolving textures (ie when I hear them I change the song). Would have been an interesting evening though.
x Lex

chetna said...

Hi Lex,

Didn't know Lauch was into classical music. Yes, it was an interesting evening - opera about Gandhi in Sanskrit was a once in a lifetime we thought.

richa said...

like it :)