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"Satyagraha" is a vital word, one that inspired composer Philip Glass nearly three decades ago. Though the term has no exact equivalent in English, the Sanskrit word "satya" means "truth," and "satyagraha"—coined 100 years ago by Mohandas K. Gandhi—stands for "truth force" or "holding onto the truth." It became the central tenet of Gandhi’s movement against anti-Indian racism in South Africa, which later grew into the campaign for Indian independence from British rule. The movement fascinated composer Glass, who in 1979 wrote an opera about Gandhi’s South Africa years. The work, a co-production with English National Opera, had its Met premiere in April 2008 under the baton of Dante Anzolini, having triumphed earlier that year in London, where the Times called it "a masterwork of theatrical intensity and integrity."

Gandhi and his followers did not rely on weapons in this struggle. They chose the power of belief, imagining a world they wanted to live in, drawing strength from their shared conviction, and eventually seeing that world into being. The brutal political and social environment of the 1970s prompted Glass to explore Gandhi’s ideas of change and non-violence, which, in his view, are more relevant than ever today as the world has become a far more violent place. "Gandhi was a great man who thought the power of truth could change the world," he says. "But we’re still struggling with that."

These ideas resonate for the creative team behind the Met’s production of Satyagraha. Director Phelim McDermott and associate director/designer Julian Crouch have earned their reputation as some of contemporary theater’s most innovative creators in large part because of the things they don’t show on stage.

The production that put them on the map, 70 Hill Lane, created in 1996 for their London-based company, Improbable, was performed on a bare stage with several rolls of Scotch tape stretched around poles, and a stack of newspaper. "Just the tape in the space was magical and strange," McDermott recalls, "because it was there and it wasn’t there, and it left a lot of space for people to read into it. We like to have a gap between what you’re saying it is and what you’re seeing… this is an opportunity for audiences to dream."

The newspaper was manipulated by the actors into makeshift puppets representing various characters in the story. The concept has since become something of a trademark: the setting on basically bare stages and the onstage transformation of simple materials, infusing them with emotional power thanks to the way in which they are handled, form a central part of the directors’ stagecraft.

McDermott and Crouch’s careers took a big leap forward in 1998 with the "junk opera" Shockheaded Peter, a hit show that toured for four years to as many continents, including a run off-Broadway. Having seen Shockheaded Peter in New York, Glass was intrigued by "the radical kind of images [Improbable] was capable of putting on stage."

When he met McDermott to talk about possible collaborations, Glass initially suggested a new production of his best-known music theater work, Einstein on the Beach, created with Robert Wilson in 1976. McDermott and Crouch were flattered but wary of approaching Einstein because, in Crouch’s words, "it feels like it’s had a definitive production." When Satyagraha was floated, though, their interest was piqued. "I knew it from buying the cassette many years ago, but not that well, so I went back to it and discovered the subject matter was incredibly interesting and timely," McDermott says. "I got very excited about it."

For Crouch, the appeal of the material was its unconventional, non-linear nature. "I was attracted to Satyagraha because there isn’t much of a story," he explains. "It’s really non-narrative. There’s some story about Gandhi and his time in South Africa, but the most famous thing about his time there—the fact that he was thrown out of the first-class compartment on his first train journey in the country—that’s not in the opera. The culminating New Castle march that the opera deals with is not actually seen on stage. The scenes are meditations on certain points of Gandhi’s time in South Africa. It’s a meditative piece. In the process of watching it, your heartbeat slows down."

The opera’s unconventional approach to storytelling was very much a product of Glass’s background in experimental theater: in the 1960s and ’70s, he worked with the downtown ensemble Mabou Mines, among other groups, in creating idea-, image-, and sound-based productions that subverted audiences’ expectations of a well-made play. Following Einstein, Satyagraha was Glass’s first full-fledged engagement with the operatic form, though, as he puts it, "I was more interested in image and music carrying the main ideas, rather than text."

This is part of the reason why, somewhat controversially, he and his collaborator Constance DeJong chose to keep the libretto of the opera, taken from an Indian sacred text, the Bhagavad Gita, in its original Sanskrit: the fact that only a tiny fraction of the audience would understand the words was, to composer and librettist, exactly the point. As the storytelling jumps back and forth in time "like pages in a family photo album," as Glass puts it, and as the music, with what we now can identify as his trademark arpeggios, flows from arias through to beautiful choral passages, Satyagraha invites audiences to give themselves over to its cumulative emotional power.

In the beginning, McDermott and Crouch were concerned by what they saw as a disconnect in the material between Gandhi, who is associated with poverty and abstinence, and the "fairly decadent Western form" that is opera. Working with a typically limited design palette helped them square that circle. "We wanted to use pure but recognizable materials and, hopefully, create a sort of alchemy with them. To create something magical out of what seemed to be pure poverty materials," says Crouch. Kevin Pollard’s costumes and Paule Constable’s lighting contribute to this striking effect.

The team first chose corrugated iron, "partly because you see it in the background of photographs of Gandhi," Crouch continues. "And because it’s the material of colonialism, really—you know, roof and walls, a fast way to make a building. It’s the combination of something very organic and very manmade that attracts me." These ideas led to the striking stage design of this production: a corrugated cyclorama backing the large, circular playing area.

Sticky tape also finds its way into the production, in an imaginative sequence in which it is ritually unfurled across the stage. And then there’s Improbable’s old favorite, newspaper—for which the creative team found intriguing justification in the opera’s content: part of the second act concerns Gandhi’s editorship of Indian Opinion, a broadsheet he used to spread his ideas about Indian rights in South Africa. In the Met production, Gandhi is portrayed by tenor Richard Croft.

Newspaper appears in numerous guises in the production, as part of the surface of the stage floor, as a prop to illustrate key moments in the story, and as the material for huge puppets that are assembled and manipulated on stage by the production’s ten-person Skills Ensemble. This particular staging element has a metaphorical power for the Improbable team, connecting their theatrical approach with Gandhi’s philosophy of collective action: "The thing about the newspaper is that ten people together can make an extraordinary kind of image—it’s the product of all those people working together," McDermott explains.

The continued relevance of Gandhi’s beliefs is underlined in the opera by references to three historic figures: Leo Tolstoy (with whom Gandhi had a formative correspondence), Rabindranath Tagore (an Indian writer and the only living moral authority Gandhi acknowledged), and Martin Luther King, Jr., who of course postdated Gandhi but who carried his ideas forward. For Glass, revisiting Satyagraha is a reminder that the struggle to end violence is far from over: "Every time someone tries to do it, or does do it, I am buoyed up by the idea that maybe this conversation about social change can somehow be helped along with another look at Gandhi’s life."

McDermott, too, says the opera’s content is timely: "I think there’s a modern media version of what protest might be. Protest doesn’t happen if you protest for a day and hope something’s going to change. It’s about a commitment to everybody staying with something, and as with Satyagraha, the changes don’t happen overnight. People stuck with that commitment and there were key moments when they made specific non-violent protests. And the change did happen."

Words that appeared frequently in critics’ assessments of this co-production of Satyagraha when it premiered in London in April 2007 were "magical" and "miraculous." The collective risk and belief that composer, creative team, and cast invested in this monumental work clearly resulted, for many spectators, in the kind of alchemy that McDermott and Crouch so hoped for. As The Guardian’s Tim Ashley wrote: "The whole thing serves as a monumental affirmation of human dignity at a time when many have begun to question its very existence—and for that, we must be infinitely grateful." —Karen Fricker

This article first appeared in the Met’s 2007–08 Season Book.