Philip Glass’s Disney Opera (The Nation)
In 2008, when Satyagraha, Philip Glass’s opera about Gandhi, came to the Met, one critic touted it as an unlikely triumph. “Good people,” the critic remarked, rarely make “good subjects for operas.” If Philip Glass succeeded against the odds with Satyagraha, it was because he had redefined the stakes: How deep into a person’s actual life did a profile have to dig in order to find something essential about him?
The composer had long been wrestling with the question—and almost always to rewarding effect. Glass jettisoned early the idea of a conventional plot or a straight-on likeness. In Einstein on the Beach (1976), the figure of Albert Einstein is a recurring image—but not a rounded character. He appears onstage in his iconic poof of whiteness, with a hoary mustache and wispy bouffant, but says nothing. Nearby, dancers careen in springy, staccato movements, while electronic music washes over the stage in repeating, wavelike ripples. However inscrutable the forms and sounds, there is something searching and revelatory about it all. One attendee at an early performance, a musician who was initially irritated and bored by the five-hour spectacle, famously described a kind of conversion experience: “I began to perceive…a whole world where change happens so slowly and carefully that each new harmony or rhythmic addition or subtraction seemed monumental.”Einstein was a eureka moment slowed to a crawl. In a sense, it was a profile of genius—of illumination—more than it was a picture of a specific genius.
Thus began the composer’s so-called portrait operas, reflections on revolutionary male figures from Einstein to Gandhi to the Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaten. Glass was after their auras.Satyagraha, for instance, which premiered in 1980, trained itself on specific historical moments in Gandhi’s life. Yet it also came encased in an untranslated Sanskrit libretto, taken from theBhagavad-Gita. You could approach the story head-on, as it were, following the biographical particulars, but you also had to accept that the actual words of the portrait extended beyond your comprehension (unless you knew Sanskrit). Understanding Glass’s Gandhi meant feeling the transcendent force of his spirituality rather than merely surveying it intellectually.