Satyagraha and living with contradictions

Tuesday 24 April 2007

In the foyer of the Coliseum at the intervals of Philip Glass’ opera Satyagraha, I heard people making the same Glass jokes that I heard at the first ever Glass concert I went to – good god! – twenty-one years ago. And people complain that his music’s repetitive.

Everyone who discusses Satyagraha mentions how long it is, as though a three-act, three-hour opera is somehow unusual.

When Satyagraha was new (to me and to the world) it revealed a dramatic and emotional depth to Glass’ musical language that had previously been implicit, or repressed. Today it is heard in retrospect, after his decades of movie soundtracks and symphonies, and people find it curiously empty, flat, and static.

Or else they find it infuriating. “Works like these can have much the same effect as mind-numbing drugs, which is no doubt why they proved so popular at the time.” The same criticism was made when Satyagraha was new, by 80s yuppies looking back at the flower-power era with disdain. The major works by first-generation minimalists have long been derided as out-of-date, irrelevant. Strangely, this just makes these pieces seem even more radical to music audiences today.

The more action there was on stage, the less interesting the music became. The stage directors were smart enough to make the stage less busy as the opera progressed. If you didn’t know already, you should have learned during the evening that the music didn’t need visual distractions to work as a theatrical experience.

What was that crocodile doing on stage? If it was just to get a few chuckles from the audience, then it was a success.

Were the texts projected on the stage successful in providing just enough context to better appreciate the opera, or were they treating us like high school kids in need of a crib sheet? I think the literalness of some of the texts (numbering off the scenes, for example) demystified the opera, and so worked against it.

Why did the wind players enter the orchestra pit gradually, as needed, during the third act? Is the audience meant to notice this?

It was wonderful to hear a live performance of one of Glass’ relatively few orchestral works worth hearing. As always there were advantages (Alan Oke’s singing in the lead role, the chorus’ performance after the first scene, watching how well the orchestra kept up such an unfamiliar musical style) and disadvantages (a couple of weak singers, the conductor’s occasional habit of broadening the tempo at dramatic moments, which kills the momentum of Glass’ music) to hearing it live versus a recording.

Some of the time it felt like the singers were all a little too polite in keeping out of each other’s way. Would a full-on La Scala type display of bravura give us a richer operatic experience of the work, or would it pull this type of music to shreds?

Is a recording of a modern opera an idealised performance? Glass certainly intended his recording of Satyagraha to be a distinctive, “perfectly” performed musical experience in its own right. Instead of documenting an ensemble performance, it was a studio creation: the singers and orchestral sections recorded part by part, overdubbed, edited and mixed. No-one had tried to record an opera this way before; presumably very few, if any, have tried this method since.

Satyagraha was recorded in the mid-1980s. Most people discussing the album these days say the sound, like that of many other products of then-new recording technology, is dreadful. I loved this LP, but haven’t listened it to years for fear that hearing it with 21st century ears will ruin it for me. The memories of the album kept coming back throughout the performance at the Coliseum: the two will coexist in my head until someone tries to make a new, more conventional recording.

The day after seeing Satyagraha I didn’t think about it at all; but since then bits of it, from every scene, having been popping into my head. Mostly the music, with the staging as a semi-subliminal accompaniment.