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Phelim McDermott on Satyagraha

A Note from Satyagraha Director Phelim McDermott

When Philip Glass first suggested to us the idea of Satyagraha as an opera we might stage at English National Opera and the Met, I realized there were certain themes in the piece that interested me. It is an obvious and sad thing that this work couldn’t be more timely. World conflict calls upon us to find new responses to injustice and oppression, and Gandhi’s early story in South Africa is an inspiring example of a different way of engaging with these challenges.

Thinking about working on my first opera, I was excited by the possibility of attempting to connect the ideas of ensemble and improvisation that Improbable use as a company with how we might communicate something of this ineffable thing Gandhi christened satyagraha, or “truth force.” By studying conflict-transformation techniques such as Worldwork and Open Space in the last few years, I had become interested in different styles of leadership and directing: approaches that could inspire large groups to be simultaneously focused on their own individual and collective awareness and so discover what they can achieve together.

The idea of improvisation being part of this piece could perhaps be misleading. Improvisation as we practice it is less about being quick-witted and wacky and more about embracing paradoxical skills. These include the ability to be courageous and decisive while at the same time open and vulnerable to whatever happens around you. We work on developing the ability to be humble, not armored, in the face of unexpected events and to stay connected to the whole group while noticing the impulses inside oneself. The question I asked myself was: how can these qualities be useful within our production to communicate Gandhi’s ideas?

The work we have done on the performance has attempted to stress that what happens between people onstage is more interesting than what can be achieved alone. The collective atmosphere among the orchestra, singers, and chorus is an embodiment of the atmosphere of satyagraha. These are, of course, simple stage ensemble ideas—not life and death concerns—but we felt there was a creative correlation between the contents of the piece and how we might communicate them in a felt way rather than an intellectual one.

Julian Crouch and I talked about the design and discovered our first challenge: relying on impressive sets seemed to be against the spirit of everything Gandhi stood for. But this is opera, and the scenes are sometimes mythic in their scale and theme. We decided we would use humble materials, as we have often done in our work, but aim high. The materials that kept recurring in our research were newspaper and corrugated iron. Gandhi published his own paper, Indian Opinion, and corrugated iron was used by the colonials for fast building of walls and roofs. So we decided to play with those two materials and in performance attempt to achieve operatic scale through human means. The struggle of the puppeteers and aerialists to create the large mythical figures would be a reflection of the satyagraha struggle itself. The use of materials such as newspaper and baskets would show it was possible to depict epic forces by simple means.

If you were to ask me how best to experience the opera, I would say let it communicate to you through different levels of reality: as historical events that are important but also on a mythical, dreaming level of forces that exist outside of normal time and space. In our version the opera begins when Gandhi is thrown off the train on the way to Pretoria. The whole piece could be a meditation on this experience within Gandhi’s mind, where, inspired by the Bhagavad Gita, he sees the mythic nature of his own struggle reflected in the moment when Prince Arjuna consults Lord Krishna the night before the battle at the Kuru Field of Justice. This leads to Gandhi’s own journey towards the historical conflict of the New Castle March. The opera could also be seen as a meditative preparation for this march, for all those involved, the night before. Any of these interpretations make sense.

The piece is musically about the worlds that can be created by combined and diverse voices: the meditative sonic landscapes that are brought into being by orchestra and singers in shifting fractal patterns. This demands a different mind state from both the performer and the listener. It is less a linear narrative and more a series of meditations on turning points in time, an invitation not just to see the historical events but to go deeper into the feelings and practices that manifested these moments of change.

Gandhi’s great vision was to use imagination over violence to effect social change. It is only through continual practice that these ideas come into being as truth forces. This was the importance of Tolstoy Farm to Gandhi, the commune where these ideas were first forged. The simple actions that Gandhi took resonate through time and inspired Martin Luther King.

One of our publicity posters for the production’s original run in 2008 asked, “Can an opera make us stand up for the truth?” After working on this piece I have come to the conclusion that it is perhaps only through an epic form like opera that we can communicate the complexity of ideas behind such a thing as satyagraha. It is through art like this that we can tell stories of what happened, not just as events, but as shifts in group perception about what is possible if people transform their state of being as well as what they do: we can be given a felt sense of what satyagraha might really mean on all of the deep levels it demands. As Gandhi says, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

—Phelim McDermott