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Review: Ambitious Opera Slow on Action and Enlightenment

By: on May 8, 2008
Opinion
Photo Credits: Sara Krulwich
Puppets backstage at "Satyagraha," at the Metropolitan Opera House.

You know when people are drinking coffee at intermission that
something is wrong. The audience that attended the April 19
presentation of "SatyaGraha" sincerely wanted to understand and be
attentive to this opera but, like me, they found themselves fighting
off sleep while desperately trying to follow along with few and poor
tools to do so.


While I was impressed and initially attracted to the
idea of the libretto sung entirely in Sanskrit, (and I do credit the
cast for executing this amazing feat over a four hour period), I, like the
Indian couple sitting next to me concurred that it was extremely
frustrating to not be able to hear and understand clearly what was
being recited. This occurred for two reasons: The first was that
there was a lack of alliteration that made the text impossible to
understand. There is something to be said for traditional forms in
this respect. The only words audible, and I credit my
understanding of them to the fact that I have been reading and
hearing Sanskrit for the past twenty five years, were "Sri Bhagavan
uvaca" or "The Blessed Lord said" but as to what He said is
anybody's guess. And to think that the entire Bhagavad - Gita was
sung on the battlefield of Kuruksetra with no help from microphones
and was heard by every soldier assembled there made me wonder how
much we have really progressed since ancient times.


The second reason that it proved impossible to understand, which
perhaps was more important in this context, was that the technology
to follow along by the written word was not exploited to the fullest
extent. The projections on the backdrop were hard to see once I
realized that they were there. I tried scanning them with my opera
glasses but the text was too high up to read in its entirety. The
minimal translations we were handed in the program could not be read
in the darkness and, even if they could have been, the type was small.
The mini marquee that lights up on teh back of each seat were not utilized
for the translations.


The mature audience, especially those who had
paid upwards of US$295.00 per ticket could not have been pleased. What
a shame that this eloquent poem on life and mortality that was sung
and heard by thousands on a battlefield could not be audibly heard
or understood by an audience a fraction of the size. Was it not the
point to enlighten us with the same message that gave Gandhi the
strength and inspiration to pursue his civil rights movement? I
think for Phillip Glass it was.


Divine or Mundane?


I found that the directors could not seem to make up their minds
as to whether or not the opera was going to be mundane or divine.
Devotion is always seen to be inferior coupled with an infuriating
assumption that the people telling their own history cannot possibly
be right but must be suffering from some kind of delusion.


Someone
should tell the creators that the battlefield of Kuruksetra dubbed
"mythical" in the opera is a very real place. Situated 160 kilometers
north of Delhi in the state of Harayana, Kuruksetra is famous as the
place where the great Mahabharata war was fought between the Pandavas
and the Kauravas and the place where Sri Krsna spoke the
Bhagavad-gita to His devotee, prince Arjuna. It is no more mythical
than the Hudson river or London.


I was excited about the prospect of
Krsna and Arjuna appearing on the stage to view the armies before the
great war. How daring for the Western mind! While I did find the
construction of Krsna's visvarupa or Universal Form as revealed
to Arjuna inventive, being made entirely out of paper and long
reeds held by several cast members, what was the point if the
actual proclaimed Source of all "satya" or goodness and "graha" or power as revealed in the eleventh chapter - is made to
look and feel mundane?


Power and Truth remained theoretical and for
these directors, incapable of being embodied in One Person. God
apparently cannot afford to wear anything better than an ill
fitting three piece suit with no shoes and not even a silk suit at
that. His hair was wild and completely unkempt. Krsna was depicted
as a person I would definitely try to avoid on the subway. I am not
sure that the way Gandhi understood Him was presented. He did
after all say "He Rama" upon his assassination.


To make matters
more paradoxical, what should have been presented in a more everyday
fashion was presented with mind numbing reverence or should I say
slowness. While being in the position of translating a culture
that is not your own can be daunting, what I witnessed made me
wonder how much of an effort was made to reach out to the living
resources surrounding McDermott and Crouch on their home turf.
Surely, being based in the UK, they have been exposed to the color
and movement of Indian dance and culture or perhaps had even seen
Louis Malles series on the BBC "Phantom India"? The UK has one of
the largest, if not the largest population of Indian immigrants in
the world. Why none of this energy and information was used to liven
up Satya Graha I don't know.


The directors relied more on large
imagery. The role of sets and majestic big pictures with little
content rather than the actual vitality of Mahatma Gandhi and the
pure sound of the Bhagavad Gita predominated. They could have done
so much more to uncover the message and make it come alive but
instead succeeded in creating a behemoth. Even traditional opera
like the Barber of Seville has movement, color and humor in it.


Action?


The greatest "action" occurred when hangers descended from the
ceiling upon which the historical figure of Tagore and the rest
of the cast, hung their British made cloth. The action is
continually in slow motion taking ten minutes or more for someone to
cross the stage. No doubt that was a choice to give emphasis to the
gravitas of the dramatic events of Gandhi's life as they unfolded
but even the most serious topics need some real action to make the
drama seem more dramatic, when it does occur, by drawing us close to
the characters.


Here characters moved across the stage at a snail's
pace. Life, and art, are fueled by contrasts. Indeed, the swirling
sounds of the music could have easily supported some swirling or
even balletic movements. We saw extras shuffling newspapers,
sometimes creating words or collecting them tediously from what I
could only guess was the ruling class in one scene. In the program
notes, the newspaper was mentioned as being a metaphor since
Gandhi was perceived to be one of the first to use modern media as
a vehicle for social change. Alright but surely another metaphor
could have been employed over four hours.


Legendary personalities passed through this piece. Tall boots
needed to be filled. Martin Luther King Jr. made only a cameo
appearance. Poor Leo Tolstoy whom Gandhi corresponded with until
Tolstoy's death in 1910 sat ,as if in effigy, in a window for half
an hour at a stretch not once but twice. Was he meant to be a watchful
eye? Was he asleep? Great pains were taken to create the Tolstoy
farm with moveable set pieces . The anticipation that rose that the
action between the characters would be as equally inventive was
dashed when nothing happened except for the set pieces to leave the
stage in the same manner in which they had arrived. It was like
watching a beautiful woman impeccably dressed who had nothing much to
say.


While the opera continues to sell out it that fact serves as a
testament as to just how spiritually hungry our neighbors are.


 


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