Opera: Gandhi's Wonder Years

Composer Philip Glass became famous--or infamous--when his minimalist opera "Einstein on the Beach" debuted in 1976. His second major work, "Satyagraha" (1979) is being staged with much fanfare at New York's grand Metropolitan Opera. "Satyagraha," which is actually part of a trilogy that includes "Einstein" and "Akhnaten," focuses on Mahatma Gandhi's politically formative years in South Africa. The production has received rave reviews for its music as well as its theatricality: giant puppets and props are made from humble materials like newspapers and corrugated metal. Glass, a decades-long devotee of Gandhi (and a Buddhist now himself), talked to NEWSWEEK's Vibhuti Patel. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why did you choose "satyagraha" for the title?
Philip Glass: It's a Sanskrit word, coined by Mahatma Gandhi, meaning truth force or, the power of truth. Gandhi turned an idea into a word. He understood the power of communication: he'd started a newspaper in South Africa, which was mailed to India so everyone knew who he was when he returned. All modern political movements have borrowed from Gandhi. In America, his legacy reappears in the work of Martin Luther King. It transformed our country.

What inspired you to write this opera?
Having worked with Ravi Shankar, I visited India in 1967 to learn more about its culture. There, in a small-town cinema, I saw a clip of Gandhi's Salt March. To protest the British-imposed tax on salt that was hurting the poor, Gandhi marched to the sea and made salt. Thousands joined him on that long march. His charisma came through so clearly that I read his autobiography. I had no idea then about doing an opera.

But why in Sanskrit?
That's the language of the Bhagavad Gita, a discourse on the value of action, which Gandhi had memorized by pasting its passages on his shaving mirror. The Gita preaches activism--Gandhi was not passive; he preached not pacifism but nonviolent resistance. Also, the words in opera are not understood anyway. We project translations onstage. When I wrote the opera, I was moved by the violent state of the world. It never occurred to me that 30 years later, there could be so much more violence. China's engaged in a genocide of an entire nation, America is in Iraq. The opera is more relevant today than it ever was.

Gandhi was against industrialization. How would he react to today's technology and to global warming?
He would have marched! I am of the Vietnam generation when people marched in protest. Today's young stay home, on the Internet. That has to change. When young people understand that the power of change is in their hands, they'll take it. The idea of satyagraha applied to ecology is powerful. It's about nonviolence to the environment.

Ironically, Gandhi's ideas are largely ignored now in India, where the information technology boom and a 9 percent economic growth are results of industrialization.
Every industrialized country has to come to terms with that. The modern world is in the thrall of technology. We mustn't let it run rampant--it can be controlled. Developing countries first develop the technology, then they learn to control it. India is still in the early years of development. It will come to terms with this because protection of nature is part of its tradition.

Your opera traces Gandhi's ideas from Tolstoy to Martin Luther King Jr. In our age of global terrorism, do you think those ideas can work in the Mideast? In Tibet?
They are the only ideas that can--and will--work. Even generals are now saying, force is not the answer. We've seen it again and again. In Iraq, we see the disaster of the Bush administration's utter lack of understanding of how history works. They've turned that country into a living nightmare. The only thing that can help us is active nonviolence. If that does not work, I don't know what can. It's hard to be optimistic, but we can be inspired by Gandhi and King. Gandhi is more present in our lives now than he ever was.

Gandhi used boycotts to great effect. Should we boycott the Olympics?
Absolutely. The Olympic Committee must--the Chinese were given the honor of presenting the Games on the basis of their agreement to respect human rights, and they've begun a genocide. They must be censored, and if the Olympic Committee doesn't do so, individual countries--starting with ours--must do it. Sports, art and culture are powerful tools. I wrote the music for the 1984 Olympics' lighting of the torch, and a piece for the Olympics in Athens in 2004. I have a great belief in the power of sports as a culture. Human values are shared through sports. People can come together. The Olympics should be a model of our behavior, they should not be given away to murderers and despots. But that story is not yet over.