I have a confession. I’m not really much of a fan of modern music past Mr. Stravinsky. Although a few pieces creep through like, say, Samuel Barber’s Vanessa. (Sorry, that was a joke.) 

I don’t mind the first two acts of John Adam’s Nixon in China. Also I think the same composer’s “On the transmigration of souls” is a great and moving work. I try modern opera, especially when it gets attention (like when Alex Ross of the New Yorker tells me I should pay attention) but none of it really sticks to my ribs the way Verdi and Wagner do.

Los Angeles is a one industry town and that industry is the movies. Philip Glass broke into the soundtrack business with 1982’s seminal Koyaanisqatsi and never looked back. He’s had an enormous and varied output since.  From being commissioned by Universal in 1998 to score their classic 1931 Dracula with Bela Lugosi (which never had a proper soundtrack) to an Academy Award nomination for his very fine work on Stephen Daldry’s The Hours (he was robbed), he’s gone on to score rom-coms (No Reservations) and super-hero movies (Fantastic Four.) He’s nothing if not prolific. 

LA Opera only started showing their love fairly recently first with their “Off Grand” series which pairs experimental works with special venues. They started with a Halloween performance in a restored downtown movie palace of his oratorio to film for Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête and then few years later a performance by the Kronos Quartet of the Dracula score to the film live.

Then things got serious. They presented his Einstein on the Beach in 2013 in its sui generis production by Robert Wilson and his Akhnaten just last year (from the ENO before it goes to the Met). Closing out his triptych of “Portraits” is Satyagraha, which opened last weekend.

The opera focuses on Gandhi and his experiences living in South Africa when he first started developing his philosophy of “Truth-Force” (satyagraha) through non-violent resistance. The five most prominent people in his life are represented onstage with a sixth making a cameo appearance.

Each act is also overseen by a representative of the past-present-future of the satyagraha movement. The storytelling is non-linear in many cases and the theatrical principles deployed in that telling are as varied and imaginative as they are affecting and impactful (“…is that a coat hanger?”) Maybe it’s the ritualistic nature of the piece but I simply can’t recall the last time a theatrical performance burned itself into my memory the way this did.

I hardly know where to heap my praise first. Director Phelim McDermott of Improbable Theatre fame and designer and co-director Julian Crouch give us a corrugated metal “O”  for the staging. They are aided by the vivid lighting designs of Paule Constable and the help of some particularly stirring projections by 59 Productions. All were draped in the pitch perfect costumes of Kevin Pollard

The importance of sacrifice is demonstrated by the cast and chorus methodically taking off their shoes and then having their coats and wraps lifted into the air. A farm and its crops are built and harvested and a mythic battle of East Indian gods takes place. Gandhi’s newspaper Indian Opinon and its influence on ideas is shown in literal and tangible form.

The newspaper then becomes a living structure and (in a very canny piece of theatrical distraction) imperceptibly envelops him only to rebirth him minutes later as an older and wiser man. The third act has a physical representation of the string theory of time using celluloid tape to depict a protest march spanning half a century. 

All of this transpires while important pieces of the text (which is being sung in Sanskrit so as not to distract us) are emplazened on the walls. The final 20 minutes are almost heartbreaking in the strength of their imagery.

The main cast of six could hardly have been bettered with the cameo role of Mrs. Alexander given to debatante mezzo-soprano Niru Liu. She deployed both her forceful top notes (frankly I thought she was a soprano at first hearing) and her umbrella against a lynch mob set against Gandhi on his re-arrival in South Africa.

As Miss Schlesen, Gandhi’s secretary and assistant, we had the formidable So Young Park, who kept the top of the ensembles gleaming with bright soprano tone all evening.

Erica Petrocelli as Mrs. Naidoo, one of Gandhi’s most important comrades, and J’Nai Bridges as Gandhi’s wife, Kasturbai, created their own magic at the beginning of Act III with their duet on the virtues of self-restraint and mindfulness. Ms. Bridges, our Nefertiti of last season, has a captivatingly rich sound and she stood out consistently as a performer and voice to keep an eye on.

Theo Hoffman as Mr. Kallenbach who was a lifelong friend and supporter of Gandhi gave strong vocal support and deployed a virile sound. He had real carrying power as evidenced by his solo which was simultaneously accompanied and thwarted by the entire wind section at full volume.

LA Opera favorite Morris Robinson as Parsi Rustomji, another great supporter of the cause, seemed to start off the evening at a disadvantage. Given a stentorian solo at the outset he didn’t seem able to focus his voice above the din. It was only as the evening progressed that he was able to remind us of his imposing gifts.

We were most fortunate to have tenor Sean Panikkar as M.K. Gandhi and his dulcet tenor voice brought a sweetness to his portrayal most especially in the contemplative solo moments that open and close the evening. His movements were always confident and purposeful no matter what he was doing. If Mr. Glass’ vocal writing was difficult or uncomfortable none of these singers betrayed themselves in the slightest throughout a long evening. 

The aforementioned din was overseen by our Chorus Director Grant Gershon, here elevated to conductor for the evening.  His versatility is consistently proved as well by his leadership of the LA Master Chorale. As the hardest working person in the room last night he was able to marshall the reduced forces of the orchestra (only winds and strings) and led them through an outstanding performance full of equal parts rhythmic precision and sensitivity.

It was obvious that they had broken down Mr. Glass’ score into blocks or fragments in the repetitive sections and I could see Mr. Gershon throughout the evening signal the performers with a “2” count as each fragment was drawing itself to a close.

So the production may not be new but the audience was and they stayed in droves until the end and cheered wildly. Yes it’s a long evening, three acts, and to the uninitiated this music can seem repetitious. However the theatrical joys of this production, these singers and players, are so great that for the majority I was left with my mouth hanging open and my eyes filled with wonder.

Photos: Cory Weaver