Satyagraha and Wall Street

Occupy Toronto

“For the first time, what’s happening in the streets is happening in the opera house.” – Philip Glass.

Of all the operas being presented in the Metropolitan Opera’s High Definition series of broadcasts, Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha is the first to seem genuinely relevant.

As I type this, I am listening to the latest news concerning the various Occupy movements in the background.  They’re speaking briefly of Occupy Boston, after having spoken of the Toronto version.  And they’re also speaking of events in Los Angeles & Portland.  For awhile there was little or no coverage: which upset those demanding some response from the “1%”.  Silence, however, may have been preferable to the coverage I’m seeing now, which has a focus almost completely on the confrontations with police, while omitting any of the conversations that these protests were meant to generate.

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King

But nevermind.  Perhaps the reason the press coverage is missing the message (such as it is) has to do with a failure to learn the lessons taught by Gandhi and his great American disciple, Martin Luther King.  MLK is a small player in Satyagraha, but brings the action of the libretto into the modern era.

Satyagraha is the second of the three portrait operas Glass created in the 1970s and 1980s:

  • Einstein on the Beach (1976): to be produced in USA & France, and later coming to Toronto in 2012 as part of the Luminato Festival
  • Satyagraha (1980)
  • Akhnaten (1983)

Satyagraha is a compound Sanskrit word possibly meaning “the force of truth” or “insistence of truth;” as I don’t speak Sanskrit there will be no insistence that I know this with certainty, only that I have been reading about this for a long time.  The word is associated with Mohandas (aka “Mahatma”) Gandhi’s mass resistance technique, something like passive resistance.

While Akhnaten is an opera that seems to be about spirituality –concerning the first monotheistic Egyptian King—I believe Satyagraha is even more spiritual.  Gandhi is unquestionably a political figure, but his methods are ultimately spiritual.

The entire libretto comes from Gandhi’s religious subtext, namely the Bhagavad Gita.  It is as though one were telling the story of Martin Luther King’s life in a play comprised completely from lines in the New Testament.

One passage in the last act –my favourite lines—situates the opera right on the interface between spirituality and activism.  Gandhi himself sings the following:

The Lord said, I have passed through many a birth and many have you. I know them all but you do not. Yet by my creative energy, I consort with Nature and come to be in time. When­ever the law of righteousness withers away and lawlessness arises, then do I generate myself on earth. I come into being age after age and take a visible shape and move a man with men for the protection of good, thrusting the evil back and setting virtue on her seat again.  (from full libretto)

Activism is reborn in every era.  We meet Gandhi in his youth in South Africa, and by the end of the opera encounter Martin Luther King, a more recent incarnation of this energy.

Satyagraha will be broadcast Saturday November 19th, and also will be available in an encore broadcast (USA: Dec 7th , Canada: January 14th).

This entry was posted in Essays, Opera, Politics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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