An introduction to Satyagraha

A captivating meditation on Mahatma Gandhi’s years in South Africa, Philip Glass‘s Satyagraha is a hypnotic and captivating spectacle, and a beautiful tribute to one of the most influential civil rights figures.

It’s an opera from Glass’s 'Portrait Trilogy'…

Glass’s Portrait Trilogy, written between 1975 and 1983, consists of three operas: Einstein on the Beach (premiered 1976), Satyagraha (p. 1980) and Akhnaten (p. 1984), all focusing on influential figures who fundamentally changed the trajectory of human history. Einstein on the Beach focussed on the titular physicist’s impact on science, Akhnaten on the pharoah Akhenaten or Amenhotep IV, the first to abandon Egyptian polytheism to focus on the worship of one God, and finally, the middle of the trilogy, Satyagraha – an exploration of Mahatma Gandhi’s influence on the political world of the time.

Meet Mahatma

In his early years, Gandhi’s non-violent campaigns against racism in South Africa was known as ‘Truth force’ – Satyagraha’s meaning in English. However, the opera is titled by its Sanskrit name ‘Satyagraha’, and is also performed in Sanskrit, as Glass keeps the heritage and culture of Gandhi’s beliefs alive. Composer Philip Glass wanted his opera to outline the world’s political and religious problems, as opposed to being a historical representation of Gandhi’s work. Because of this, as with all of Glass’s operas, Satyagraha doesn’t follow a conventional narrative, although it does loosely follow the life of Gandhi from his suit-wearing days as a lawyer in South Africa, to the holy man we can picture today. 

Philip Glass is known for his ‘minimalist’ musical style…

…Although he doesn’t like that term – he prefers to call his compositions, ‘music with repetitive structures’. Minimalist music, which developed as composers tried to break free from traditional musical styles, is hypnotic and repetitive. Philip Glass’s music has influenced artists, composers and musicians; from David Bowie to Nico Muhly to Hans Zimmer.

The opera, performed entirely in Sanskrit, an ancient Hindu language, has no actual dialogue, instead verses adapted from the Bhagavad Gita (Hindu scripture) are sung by the principles and the chorus. It is made up of three acts, which is each dedicated to a key figure related to Gandhi: Leo Tolstoy, of whom he had corresponded with, Rabindranath Tagore, a close friend, and Martin Luther King, who was inspired by Gandhi’s non-violent approach.

To discover more about the incredible work of this American, contemporary, minimalist composer, read our Beginner’s Guide to Philip Glass.

McDermott’s star production returns

Director Phelim McDermott first staged the highly-acclaimed production in 2007, and is also known for his award winning run of Glass’s Akhnaten in 2016. Featuring huge set pieces and beautiful costumes, this production provides a spectacle known the world over, through the Met Opera’s streams during 2020. A mesmerising and beautiful staging of a touching work, Satyagraha captivates audiences everytime. You can relive the magic of ENO’s incredible performance through the production photographs.