Philip Glass wrote his third opera, the seminal Satyagraha, in 1979. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s formative years in South Africa and the development of his philosophy, the work has its Met premiere on 11 April in a new production by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch. The 70-year-old composer, a veteran of 20 operas, told the Met’s Elena Park what moved him to address the subject—and what Gandhi’s message can teach us today.
Satyagraha is about a visionary leader who believed in social change through non-violence. Nearly three decades later, you have written Appomattox, an opera about two iconic leaders of the Civil War. What do these operas have in common?
They’re both about social change. Interestingly enough, it’s almost like coming back to the theme of Satyagraha. Those two men—Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee—were men of tremendous moral stamina and character. They are reflections of Gandhi. They were able to hold onto things that are the best parts of human nature.
What do you recall about composing Satyagraha?
I remember starting at the beginning and running straight through to the end. When I came to the last note of the last scene, I was done. I didn’t go back, and I did hardly any rewriting. When I began writing Satyagraha, I had already been going to India for over 12 years. I knew a lot about Gandhi. I visited the places he lived, I knew people who knew him. I studied his autobiographical writings. Within a few years of that period of study, I was writing about him, so I was very close to the material, and for that reason I think it was easy to write. This was right after Einstein on the Beach, which was 1976. I had an idea of doing a piece like this which is ironic in a way—because by the late 1970s, I thought that the political and social landscape had become so violent and that it was really time to think about the man who invented the idea of social change and non-violence. Little did I know that 30 years later, it would be far more violent.
You described your approach to writing opera as playful. How did your background in experimental theatre influence you?
I was interested in rebalancing the elements of opera: text, movement, image, and music. The scenes (in Satyagraha) were not arranged in chronological order. If you were looking at a book of photographs—let’s say a family album—you might not look at it in sequential order. We can view history that way. I created the opera that way as well. Since we already know the story, we don’t really need to arrange it in a normal sequence. So I took the elements of theatre and rearranged them. I considered them playful; some people might have considered this sacrilegious. But we’re still looking at these pieces, so they couldn’t have been such a bad idea.
How familiar were you with opera and its conventions when you first started composing in this form?
When I went to music school, I studied opera. I didn’t think I was going to write any. But when the Met was on 39th Street, I sat in the student seats for a few dollars, at the very top where I could have a score desk. That’s how I learned about opera, whether it was Berg or Verdi or whomever. So I wasn’t coming to opera without that knowledge. But I was taking it to a place that was very different.
What advice did you give to Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch as they were creating this new production?
I said, “Well, look. We did it the way we did it in 1979. But I expect you’ll do it differently—you should.” I wasn’t interested in advising them. I was more interested in what they would do. They’re brilliant people. I’d seen their theatre. I didn’t want to stand in the way of anything that would come to them.
This is an opera that was composed 30 years ago. If it has a future, it will be because other people, and not my generation, will reinvent it. If that’s truly happening, I should not be part of it.
What does the concept of satyagraha mean to you now?
Being inspired by social change through non-violence was authentic. I can identify with that idea as strongly today as I did when I wrote the opera. I was in my 40s at that time, so I wasn’t like a kid. But I’m in a very different place now. For one thing, I’ve seen the world change in a dramatic and not particularly good way. We’re in a more desperate situation than we were 30 years ago.
I don’t know what the power of art has to do in the world. Sometimes it’s hard to see that it has any. And yet when I talk to people about this piece, it seems to have had a strong meaning for them...There’s a line at the end of Satyagraha, when Krishna says, “I come into the world a man among men to put virtue on its feet again.” I’m inspired to do opera with this hope.
The Message in the Music by Elena Park is reprinted courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera, from the 2007-08 Season Book.