Leo Tolstoy, Rabrindanath Tagore, and Martin Luther King, Jr. shared the London Coliseum stage with Mahatma Gandhi on April 5 at the premiere of a new production of Philip Glass's Satyagraha. The remarkable staging, featuring a strong cast, full chorus, and improvisational puppetry and aerialists, was created by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch of London's provocative Improbable theater company. A co-production of English National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, it travels to the Met in April 2008. The work is a meditation on Gandhi's formative years in South Africa, when he developed his philosophy of non-violent protest as a powerful force for change.
The British premiere of Satyagraha took place before a packed house of opera fans and theater watchers, including Fiona Shaw, Michael Nyman, Graham Vick, and past Glass collaborator Doris Lessing, as well as Met General Manager Peter Gelb, who had flown in for the premiere.
The night of the opening, McDermott talked about getting the green light for his first opera production a year earlier. He recalled that Glass had remarked, "Why shouldn't I let that little guy I met in the cafe do the opera?" Glass had seen the maverick ensemble's memorable staging of Shockheaded Peter, which had played the West End and Broadway a few years ago.
He added that with Satyagraha, his work had come full circle. "My first piece of theater after college, thirty years ago, was Cupboard Man, which used Philip Glass music," McDermott said. "It was such a weird time slip to be doing this piece."
He and collaborator Julian Crouch said that Philip Glass didn't want to offer specific instructions about how to stage the work. At the Met's February press conference announcing the 2007-08 season Glass explained, "I didn't want to get in the way of what they wanted to think about. What I wanted to see was how a completely new generation of people would approach a work which I thought I knew very well, and I was looking forward to what surprises I might find out from their side."
Crouch discussed the production's design, which features corrugated iron walls and giant puppets made of newspaper. "I'm often on the lookout for a material that can somehow embody the production. … Looking at those photographs of Gandhi … I was very struck by how … you would see these buildings with corrugated iron walls, corrugated iron roofs." About the newspaper, he said, "Gandhi was one of the first people to harness the power of the media. …He published his own paper Indian Opinion.…We're using newspaper as a sort of alchemical material taking these poor materials—corrugated iron and newspaper—and making visionary imagery."
In the midst of press and opera meetings, Philip Glass, who recently turned 70, found time yesterday to sit in with Brooklyn-based singer/guitarist Dan Zanes and his band, performing keyboards on "A Place for Us" for an audience of dancing children at Queen Elizabeth Hall.
Speaking at the cast party following the premiere, Glass said, "It's such a great gift to see a piece realized beyond what I could have imagined...It's one of the happiest experiences I've had." —Elena Park
View a Satyagraha photo gallery.
Read reviews of the London premiere.