ENO’s Sanskrit opera celebrates Gandhi


AN OPERA themed around Indian freedom icon Mahatma Gandhi’s early years in South Africa hopes to entice diverse audiences to become future performers, the production’s director has said.

Satyagraha focuses on Gandhi’s journey as a young man as he develops the idea of non-violent protests. Composed by Philip Glass, the opera was first staged in 2007 and has recently returned to London to critical acclaim.

Sang entirely in Sanskrit, the three-act opera adopts a non-linear narrative, which moves back and forth to significant points of Gandhi’s life.

Despite featuring such an iconic Indian figure, however, the casting list of Satyagraha is primarily white.

Director Phelim McDermott told Eastern Eye on Tuesday (20) opera has a long way to go if it is to capture the imaginations of more diverse performers and audiences.

“To become an opera singer takes an incredible commitment to an art form that can be perceived as very Western and old fashioned,” McDermott said. “It is my hope that some of the diverse audiences which the opera has brought to both the English National Opera (ENO) and the Metropolitan Opera will become future performers and make the form more diverse and develop in exciting ways.

“Let’s hope Satyagraha can open some doors of imagination and possibility.”

(L-R) Nicholas Folwell, Anna-Clare Monk, Charlotte Beament, Toby Spence, Clive Bayley and Stephanie Marshell in Satyagraha (Photo by: Donald Cooper)

McDermott, who initially directed the production when it debuted for ENO 11 years ago, remarked that each time the show returned to the stage, it appeared to be more “relevant” and “urgent” in the message it portrayed.

“Each time…the company recreates [Satyagraha] the performance seems to get deeper,” he said. He added that Gandhi’s ideas remain relevant today.

“When we have learnt the lessons Gandhi wisdom has for us, then perhaps that question [of his relevance] will not be necessary,” McDermott said.

Toby Spence sings the part of Gandhi, his first time playing the iconic figure. A choral scholar at Oxford University, Spence said singing as the activist was “an honour, but also a duty”.

“Representing the life and influence of such an iconic figure is something not to be taken lightly and I will always be grateful to be able to move people through the works of Gandhi,” he told Eastern Eye. “That said, it is a job and as a singer it is important to represent myself well as an artist.”

The tenor stated a challenge of the job was memorising Sanskrit and the music. He claimed as simple as memorising music may seem to audiences, it constantly changes through subtle details.

“I’m not sure I pronounce the Sanskrit authentically, but that’s not important,” Spence said. “The Sanskrit is taken from the (holy scripture) Bhagavad Gita and is laid over the musical drama as a mantra-like meditation.

“Our singing of the text is a means by which to help the audience find a level of meditative contemplation – the words are not to be listened to and understood, rather accepted and enjoyed for their sounds and rhythms.”

Combining puppetry and film to work alongside the operatic voices, the production is described as visually “powerful” by McDermott, who revealed he always creates theatre with a strong, visual sensibility.

“Opera must synthesise all the elements of theatre visual, aural and emotional to reach its full potential,” the director said.

Satyagraha runs at the London Coliseum until 27th February