RICHARD DOVE reflects on Philip Glass’s timeless opera
In 1960s Lower Manhattan there was a very definite merging of culture and logistics. If you had ordered a new wardrobe or dining table it was distinctly possible that the delivery men could be the two masters of emerging minimalism, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. They both freelanced for a company called Low Rate Movers. The art critic Robert Hughes needed a plumber to fix his dishwasher and was more than surprised when a smock-clad man with a shock of black hair and a bag of plumber’s tools showed up. ‘But you’re Philip Glass! What are you doing here? You’re an artist.’ Glass explained that whilst he was an artist, he was also a plumber.
The music of Philip Glass now graces concert halls and opera houses around the world. He is a prolific composer having forged a style of layered repetition and exquisite harmonies that beguiles many and upsets not a few. As I walked to the Coliseum in central London, I passed a few plumbers’ vans. I hoped that, in a wonderful act of circularity, at least one or two were heading to the latest production of Glass’s totemic opera, Satyagraha. This was the last night, so it would be their last London opportunity for some time.
‘This is just wonderful.’ For my audience neighbour, it was her first Philip Glass experience. ‘Well, you’ve got a lot of catching up to do’, I replied. Glass’s astonishing avalanche of creativity has seen the creation of over thirty operas, thirteen symphonies, small ensemble pieces, concertos and countless film scores.
Satyagraha was the return to business of the English National Opera after what it described as ‘an extended interval.’ The opera is, to use the ENO’s highly appropriate description, a ‘meditation’ on Gandhi’s early years in South Africa, a co-production with New York’s Metropolitan Opera with conductor Carolyn Kuan and director Phelim McDermott. It is sung in Sanskrit with words from the Bhagavad Gita and some of the headline translations were mostly obscured for us on the balcony and above. It did not matter. It was an immersing mediation, and the plot was insignificant. It is an emotional journey through Gandhi’s embrace of non-violent protest to change minds and politics. The looping harmonies and spectacular staging created an embracing ambiance where you can pick and choose what you look at and how you interpret the narrative. The result is, to use another ENO programme description, ‘mesmeric’.
Satyagraha is Sanskit for ‘truth force’ and the opera takes you and back and forth in Gandhi’s life as his philosophy of protest takes shape and consequence. Sean Panikkar brought nuance and quiet strength to the role of Gandhi as he slowly walked the stage, his voice both tender and firm. The huge, imposing corrugated iron wall set resonated a South Africa shantytown. Meditation became a dream populated by Phelim McDermott’s vast puppets, the wicker emu being a particular highlight, and Julian Crouch’s soaring adaptable sets. The immense power of the voices of Verity Wingate and Felicity Buckland cut through the coughing and rustling (in my vicinity) and commanded attention.
Satyagraha is the third of Glass’s so-called Portrait trilogy – Einstein on the Beach (which he staged largely with his own savings and had to drive a New York cab and deliver furniture to recover financially) and Akhnaten, the Egyptian Sun God which was also staged by Phelim McDermott in 2016. None of the three operas have a lateral narrative, but wander through their subjects’ lives and experiences. The music is described as minimalist, but it is nothing of the sort. The motif of repetition masks constant change and highs and lows of emotion. It requires from the players and the conductor both technical and emotional engagement. As Glass himself says:
What you hear depends on how you focus your ear. We’re not talking about inventing a new language, but rather inventing new perceptions of existing languages. I don’t like using language to convey meaning. I’d rather use images and music.
For my neighbour, new to all this, it was a state of rapture despite often not knowing what was going on. She told me she worked at St Thomas’ Hospital and it was just joyful to be part of an audience again after an horrific eighteen months. Joy and rapture, not a bad way to spend a Thursday evening.
As I left the Opera House, I noticed the plumbers’ vans had disappeared. Some domestic emergency interrupting Act 3? The composer is close on 85 years old and yet his creativity is undiminished. His Symphonies No 14 and 15 receive their world premieres next year as does a new ballet called ‘Alice’. Clearly, the days of furniture moving and dishwasher repair are long gone.
RICHARD DOVE writes from Kent