Scene 1. The Kuru Field of Justice.

The union of the Sanskrit text and modern action is magnificent and evident from the outset. The opening scene is reminiscent of a mythological prologue with one foot planted in the contemporary world. As in the Bhagavad-Gita, the opera begins on the battlefield. Two royal families, the Kuruvas and the Pandavas, are at odds with each other. From both sides, warriors and chieftains blow their battle shells, announcing their readiness to fight with a din resounding between heaven and earth.

Arjuna, who opposes Duryodhana, asks the godhead Krishna why the battle must occur. Visually, two armies face each other in silhouette, while the three characters talk through the situation. From the choral climax, Ghandhi's voice emerges, echoing Krishna's words.

Scene 2. Tolstoy Farm (1910).

With only a handful of satyagrahis pledged to resist the Europeans' racial discrimination, Gandhi initiates the first collective action among South Africa's Indian residents by establishing an agrarian community that will become the headquarters and spiritual training ground for his movement. Although no one knows how long the struggle will last, with the Tolstoy Farm, the Satyagrahi can progress toward securing an immediate goal. Here, all families can live in one place and become members of a cooperative commonwealth. Residents can be trained to live a new, simple life in harmony with one another. Everything from building to cooking to scavenging will be done with their own hands. The building of the farm draws everyone into an active involvement with the satyagraha ideal – a "fight on the behalf of Truth consisting chiefly in self-purification and self-reliance."

Scene 3. The Vow (1906).

The British government proposes an amendment that will institute an entire re-registration and fingerprinting of all Indians, including men, women, and children. Everyone will be required to carry resident permits at all times. Police can enter people's homes to inspect for certificates, and offenses will be punishable by fines, jail, or deportation. The proposed Black Act becomes the occasion for a large rallying of the community around a specific issue. At a public meeting attended by more than 3,000 people, a resolution is drawn up stating that all will resist the act unto death. Suddenly, the Satyagrahi reach a turning point. The life-and-death terms of the resolution call for a step beyond ordinary majority vote and ratification. All in attendance listen to the speakers' explanations of the solemn responsibility of taking individual pledges. For only a vow taken in the name of God will support an individual's observance of the resolution in the face of every conceivable hardship, even if he/she is the only one left.


Pat Nixon tours the city with guides. Factory workers present her with a small model elephant, which she delightedly informs them, is the symbol of the Republican Party, which her husband leads. She visits a commune and is greeted enthusiastically. Captivated by the children's games that she observes in the school, she sings: "I used to be a teacher many years ago, and now I'm here to learn from you." She proceeds to the Summer Palace, where in a contemplative aria, she envisages a peaceful future for the world: "This is prophetic."

Scene 1. Confrontation and Rescue (1896).

The start of Act II goes back to 1896, when Gandhi returned to Durban after a visit to India, having drawn the world's attention to the plight of his countrymen who had come to South Africa as indentured workers. Angry with his portrayal of life in South Africa, the British accost him. His life is saved only when the wife of the police superintendent takes him under her protection.

Scene 2. Indian Opinion (1906).

The scene begins with the 1906 founding of Indian Opinion, the movement's weekly newspaper. It is set to the text "As witless fools perform their works…so with senses freed the wise man should act, longing to bring about the welfare and coherence of the world." The staging includes the assembly of a giant printing press and the printing and distribution of the paper.


(Act II continued)

Every aspect of production was considered in light of the struggle, and the paper progressively reflected the growth of satyagraha principles. The decision to refuse all advertisement freed the publication from any outside influence and made its very existence the mutual responsibility of those working on the paper and readers whose subscriptions provided financial support. With respect to policy, Indian Opinion openly diagnosed weaknesses of the movement as a means for eradicating them. Although this strategy kept adversaries well-informed, more importantly, it pursued the goal of real strength. Given the strength of its internal policy, Indian Opinion could inform the local and world communities with ease and success, thus using communication as a powerful weapon. At its peak, readership was 20,000 in South Africa alone.

Scene 3. Protest (1908).

The Satyagrahi meet again in 1908 to discuss the Black Act, Movement leaders are sentenced to prison for disobeying an order to leave South Africa, issued because of their failure to satisfy the magistrate that they are lawful holders of certificates of registration as required. The community resolves to fill up the jail. Courting all kinds of arrest, the number of satyagraha prisoners rises to 150 by week's end. The government proposes a settlement: if the majority of Indians undergo voluntary registration, the government will repeal the Black Act. The Satyagrahi uphold their part of the bargain, but the government does not honor its commitment. In response, the Satyagrahi issue an ultimatum: if the Black Act is not repealed, they will collect and burn their certificates and accept the consequences.

On the day of the expiration of the ultimatum, the government's refusal is sent to site where Gandhi is conducting a prayer meeting prior to the burning of the registration cards. The cards are thrown into the cauldron, and the crowd rises to its feet and cheers. Satyagraha has its literal baptism by fire.

The choral setting of the finale is melodically simple and rhythmically intricate. The accompaniment quotes the opera's opening scene and adds a few quick "rocket ship" figures that Glass used throughout his opera Einstein on the Beach.


Newcastle March (1913).

The entire act is devoted to the Newcastle March of 1913, set on the same mythological battlefield as the opening scene. Gandhi's intention is to persuade the miners to strike in protest of the government's new discriminatory immigration and tax laws. A color bar restricts the immigration of even those who can pass the "education test".  The tax law applies to those immigrants who choose to remain in the country. If confronted, the Satyagrahi are to refrain from resisting. When arrested, they are to flood the jails, creating logistical problems and expense for the government. If they are not challenged, they are to take the strikers to Tolstoy Farm and prolong the strike until the government gives in. Within five weeks of the standoff, the government comes around. The Black Act and the tax law are both repealed. In the opera, after the arrests, Gandhi remains alone on stage while Martin Luther King looks on.

Gandhi's final aria is an ascending Phrygian scale, repeated 30 times over a simple progression of minor chords. It is very touching, although an austere setting of a text that embodies the spirit of the entire work and explains Gandhi's final skyward glance at King. The words are Krishna's: "I have passed through many a birth and many have you. I know them all, but you do not. Unborn am I, changeless is my Self, of all contingent beings I am the Lord. Yet by my erosive energy, I consort with Nature and come to be in time. For whenever the law of righteousness withers away and lawlessness arises, then do I generate myself on earth. I come into being age after age and take a visible shape and move a man with men for the protection of good, thrusting the evil back and setting virtue on her seat again."

Highlights of the Opera

  • Satyagraha is regarded as a "minimalist opera." Itis the second of what Glass called his Portrait Trilogy or Triptych of biographical operas. The first was Einstein on the Beach (1976) and the third was Akhnaten (1984). The main characters in all three operas were driven by an inner vision that affected the age in which they lived.
  • After Glass had completed the three operas, his intention was that they be performed as a cycle in the order in which he wrote them, thus illustrating the progression of his musical style. Although some have compared Glass to Wagner, in that each wrote a cycle of operas, the two composers differed in their processes.  Early on in Wagner's long process, the composer made the commitment to the four-opera Ring Cycle. Only after Glass had completed Akhnaten did he express his opinion that it be performed in a cycle that included Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha.
  • Notwithstanding Glass's preference for the performance of the three operas in the order in which he wrote them, in 1990, the Stuttgart Opera presented two cycles with the first opera, Einstein on the Beach, at the end rather than at the beginning. The change in order allowed the designer and stage director Achim Freyer to move from the most historically based to the more loosely structured to the more abstract, emphasizing that the visual progression was more important than the musical progression. Generally speaking, visual innovations that distract from the music are regarded negatively.  However, with Glass, the shift from musical to visual development may have created a new form of visual drama.
  • Shortly after a 1976 performance of Einstein on the Beach in Amsterdam, the director of the Netherlands Opera asked Glass to write a "real" opera, meaning one for orchestra and chorus with soloists trained and experienced in the singing of traditional operas. Glass was willing to comply with the request. He completed Satyagraha in 1980. The opera marked a turning point for him both musically and dramatically. With the exception of some of his earlier student compositions, Satyagraha was the first time that Glass used orchestral strings and winds instead of his own amplified ensemble. It was also his first opera in a traditional form, a three-act opera with an arching dramatic shape. There are also elements of lyricism and expressivity that were not part of Glass's previous works.
  • Unlike many of Glass's other operas, Satyagraha has similarities to the works of other composers. For example, in the opening scene, "The Kuru field of Justice," an aria becomes a duet, then a trio, set with rich, declamatory, almost Verdian directness. Other scenes are reminiscent of the music of Wagner, Berlioz, or Rossini. Yet at no point is there any doubt about the identity of the composer.
  • "Satyagraha", roughly "firmness of truth", is a term coined buy Mohandas Gandhi to describe an approach to civil disobedience that he developed as a young lawyer in South Africa. In its time, it was effective in responding to the oppressive regime of the British Empire. Glass's opera of the same name is a meditation on this type of peaceful persuasion. Although Gandhi is prominent in the opera, the work is less about him than about the concept, Gandhi's crucial achievement in political thought. The opera is designed on a moral, religious plane, and is closer to ritual than it is to entertainment. Glass deliberately used only what he called "international instruments" that could be found both in the West and in India.
  • Satyagraha has been described by Allan Kozinn as "two works in one." The text, set in Sanskrit in order to respect its sacred source, derives from the 700 verse Hindu epic Bhagavad-Gita. Chapter and verse indications are included in the margin. Divorced from the opera's staging and characters, it seems like a grand Hindu cantata. The text, culled and arranged by Constance DeJong, is simultaneously platitudinous, prescriptive, and timeless. Glass and DeJong make the connection between the ancient world and modern action in a series of tableaux depicting key incidents from Gandhi's South African years, signposts to the effective deployment of satyagraha. The second context is three historical figures, each of whom silently presides over one act as a spiritual guardian: Leo Tolstoy, whose work and letters inspired Gandhi; Tagore, an Indian poet and scholar greatly respected by Gandhi; and Martin Luther King, whose use of passive resistance was inspired by Gandhi. To Glass, these three figures represented the past, present, and future of satyagraha.
  • The opera focuses on the period that Gandhi spent in South Africa (1893-1914) and his fight to repeal the Black Act, a law that restricted the movement of non-Europeans from place to place and that virtually enslaved the large Indian community in South Africa.
  • Although the opera has a clearly defined plot, it is not presented chronologically. In the timeless, purely philosophical opening, Gandhi is advised by Prince Arjuna and Lord Krishna. The following scenes are set in 1910, 1906, 1896, 1906, 1908, and 1913, in that order. Every scene is a self-sufficient drama in miniature. Connections between the scenes are established by the music, rather than through a continuity of action on the stage.
  • Satyagraha was first performed at the Schouwburg (Municipal Theatre) in Rotterdam on September 5, 1980. Bruce Ferden conducted the Utrecht Symphony Orchestra and the Choir of the Rotterdam Conservatory. The North American premiere took place at the Artpark in Lewiston, NY on July 29, 1981. That same year, the opera was presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Stuttgart Opera. The first production by a major international opera company took place in 1987, with Douglas Perry singing the role of Gandhi at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
  • Subsequent performances took place in Bath, UK (1997), San Francisco (1989), and Theater Bonn in Germany (2013). The English National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera collaborated on a production in 2007/2008. In 2011, the Met offered the opera Live in HD. In 2014, a new production was staged at the Ekaterinburg State Academic Opera in Russia. Still another new production was presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2018.

About this Website

The website contains links to the music we will hear and other background information.

Questions and Additional Information

Please reach out to Instructor Margie Satinsky with questions and requests for additional information. Contact information is: (919) 383-5998 (home/work), or (919) 812-2235 (cell/text), or margiesatinsky@icloud.com.