Opera Scotland

Satyagraha M K Ghandi in South Africa

Tours by decade

Tours by location


Philip Glass (born Baltimore, 31 January 1937)


Constance DeJong and the composer


The Bhagavad-Gita (ancient Hindu sacred text)



First Performance: Rotterdam (Stadsschouwburg), 5 September 1980.

First Performance in UK: Bath (Bath Spa University), 19 February 1996.

First Performance in Scotland: N/A.

Scottish Opera premiere: N/A.



The opera depicts events in the early life and political awakening of Ghandhi during his years in South Africa from 1893 to 1913. At this period he developed the idea of Satyagraha or 'passive resistance' to British colonial rule, which, for the rest of his life, would be applied in India. It is one of the most successful of Glass's stage works. It combines elements of tableau and oratorio with conventional opera, with scenes almost like snapshots of events and meditations. The Brussels premiere was directed by David Pountney - at that time still strongly identified with Scottish Opera. In Britain, ENO is the only major British company to have staged the piece, in a co-production with the New York Met. As well as the depiction of incidents, there are silent cameo appearances framing each act by influential authors - Tolstoy, Tagore, Martin Luther King, who provide an inspiration for the three acts. The massed choruses represent Indian crowds and opposed armies.

The sung text is throughout in Sanskrit, and does not represent the speech or thoughts of the characters during the events depicted, but rather the texts used by Gandhi for daily meditation. It sounds as though this should be an irritating and alienating effect, but it works remarkably well as a piece of theatre. The extracts from the Bhagavad Gita, an episode taken from the Mahabharata, tell of Krishna's direction of Arjuna in preparation for the battle of Kuruksetra.


Main Characters

M K Ghandhi (tenor)

Miss Schlesen (soprano)

Mrs Naidoo (soprano)

Mrs Alexander (contralto)

Mr Kallenbach (baritone)

Parsi Rustomji (bass)

Kasturbai (mezzo-soprano)

Arjuna (tenor)

Lord Krishna (bass)


Plot Summary

Each of the three acts concentrates on one event during the twenty year period. The first, after a sequence in which Krishna instructs Anjuna to be wise when facing death, concerns the organisation by Gandhi of a farm (named in honour of Tolstoy). It also shows demonstrations which took place following the introduction of identity cards. We then see his return to Durban after a visit to India with the opposition his arrival aroused, his establishment of a newspaper, Indian Opinion, followed by the ceremonial burning of identity cards. Finally we are shown the miners' strike organized to protest against racially discriminatory laws, and the peaceful march that followed it.

© Copyright Opera Scotland 2024

Site by SiteBuddha