Review: An Evocative “Satyagraha” at the L.A. Opera

Sean Panikkar as Gandhi in LA Opera's 2018 production of "Satyagraha." (Photo: Cory Weaver)

How to decode a Philip Glass opera? Perhaps the key is in not trying to, and simply immersing yourself in the cornucopia of sounds and images set to his trademark unhurried pace. Glass is undoubtedly one of those artists who make you work for the satisfaction — testing your patience, but with the promise of a profound payback. Satyagraha, about the early political struggles of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, which first premiered more than four decades ago, is no exception.

Sean Panikkar (center, in white) as Gandhi with the men of the LA Opera Chorus in LA Opera’s 2018 production of “Satyagraha.” (Photo: Cory Weaver)

The opera is based on the life of Gandhi’s early adult years from 1893 South Africa to the New Castle March in 1913 protesting the restriction of Indian immigration and hefty taxes. During this period, he developed his now renowned techniques for non-violent protest against the socio-political injustices of the world called “Satyagraha” — a phrase he coined combining “satya”, meaning ‘truth’, and “agraha”, meaning “to hold on to”, thus forming “truth-force” or “love-force.”

Sean Panikkar as Gandhi in LA Opera’s 2018 production of “Satyagraha.” (Photo: Cory Weaver)

Mesmerizing in a Julie Taymor-esque way, the production is directed by Phelim McDermott. It seduces and thrills its audience through a masterful use of costumes, original props (including giant puppets), an almost hypnotic combination of color and lighting, and pithy yet powerful video projections of Gandhi’s sage teachings. In Gandhi’s life and work there was a lot of steady repetition before social change could occur and the patterns of Glass’ score mirror this sentiment with their slow, repetitive, instantly recognizable style.  

Sean Panikkar as Gandhi in LA Opera’s 2018 production of “Satyagraha.” (Photo: Cory Weaver)

The story is told in three acts, each overseen by a great historical figure — Tolstoy, Tagore and Martin Luther King (who continued Gandhi’s vision) and using lines from the Bhagavad Gita. The narrative is depicted in symbolic scenes, resulting in a form of communal meditation with Glass’ music, and giving the audience plenty of time to reflect and connect to the non-violent message. Throughout his journey, Gandhi changed many lives as well as encountered  lots of opposition and ridicule. Perhaps the most disturbing scene is at the beginning of Act Two in which he faces the relentless mockery of the European middle class to the choruses of ” HA!, HA!, HA!” Then, there is the rousing appearance of Mrs. Alexander AKA “lady with the parasol” (mezzo soprano, Niru Lou) who gives Gandhi succor, and who one cannot help but relate to the Statue of Liberty while reflecting on the grave ironies of our current political climate.

Niru Liu as Mrs. Alexander (with Sean Panikkar, on floor, as Gandhi) in LA Opera’s 2018 production of “Satyagraha.” (Photo: Cory Weaver)

Tenor, Sean Panikkar shines in the lead role as Gandhi, bringing the character to life with electrifying magnetism and an unmatched voice that resonates truth and warmth.  Soprano, So Young Park is also outstanding, and her enchanting voice will remain in your mind long after the performance ends. Three hours and fifteen-minutes later, Satyagraha will make you feel like you’ve emerged from a long, enlightening meditation, the mantra still resounding in your soul.

— Victor Riobo / Ghalib Dhalla.

Satyagraha at the LA Opera playing through November 11th. Tickets HERE.