Friday, December 2nd, 2011

'Satyagraha' and Occupy Lincoln Center, Last Night

The biggest opera house in the United States concluded its performance on time last night, at 11:15 p.m. Many of the nearly 4,000 people in attendance at the Met lingered in their seats for a bit, the better to praise the cast, orchestra and conductor—as well as to see if Philip Glass would take a curtain call. A number would have heard that the composer of Satyagraha, an opera about the life (sorta) and philosophical lineage (more consequentially) of Gandhi, was meant to have already spoken, at 10:30 p.m., to the Occupy Lincoln Center group just outside. When Glass did at last appear on stage, he was met with a rowdy harmony of cheers from what sounded like all levels of the opera house. Seeing a living composer take a bow in person after some masterful interpretation of his or her work can often carry a charge. But this time, the aggregate cheer's decibel-level felt augmented as well by the collision of the piece in question, first performed in 1980, and the specific time and place of its present revival. Police-evicted Occupy Wall Street protesters could be seen from the windows of the balcony-level's intermission space as patrons departed.

Satyagraha, or (loosely) "truth force" in Sanskrit, is all about a certain form of commitment not at all foreign to social justice movements in general, the Occupy project included. Its first act evokes the real-life exchange of letters and inspiration between Leo Tolstoy (around the period of his anarcho-mystically Christian late novel Resurrection, which is unjustly neglected) and the young lawyer Gandhi. Act Two posits the intellectual Tagore as precursor to Gandhi's journalistic work with Indian Opinion. Act Three passes the passive resistance torch on to Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the Met's production, by Phelim McDermott, the American Civil Rights movement plays out in chiaroscuro fashion, at the back of the stage for a long portion of the final act; King rises to a podium while Gandhi combats the "color bar" laws of the government in the foreground. At one juncture, the shadows of acrobats who are miming, in slow motion, the violence of police against Civil Rights protestors are visible through windows scrimmed with newspapers. Meantime, projections of documentary videos showing similar truth-forces play around the borders of those same windows. When the shock troops break the historical fourth wall, slicing the newspapers into ribbons as they move from the deep American south into the forward-stage world of Gandhi's compatriots, the viewer's response may be to object on the basis of some temporal-spacial order. Police can't just do that, can they? They can't magically cross continents and decades in order to tamp down any social movement they choose, right?

The constricts that power itself is obliged to observe are actually amorphous, at least from the outside; it's hard to know exactly where they really lie, or when, or to what degree, they may ever be changing. This accounts not just for what we may now commonly describe as Kafkaesque machinations of legal systems, but also citizens' wariness regarding nascent social movements. (Are they "really" doing something important? Are they "good" at whatever it is? Are they "likely" to succeed regarding issues "coherently" expressed?)

This is all part of power's language. So, on Thursday night, were phrases like: "Exit down the ramp to the right," which is what opera-goers heard from police trying to keep the Occupy movement cleanly separate from the people who had just watched Satyagraha. The blitheness with which these official police suggestions were ignored, or even taken as "suggestions," was striking. So too, given the very recent history in Zuccotti Park, was the total lack of consequence suffered by those disobeying these directions. Wearing a suit—even a cheap one—has its privileges.

A few opera-goers assisted the front line of Occupy protesters in opening up a split between two barricades. A cop, hearing the unclanking kiss of the metal hooks, looked on somewhat confusedly as protestors elected not to simply swarm into the plaza. "This is dumb," a young man told the cop. "We don't need these separating us." Then a couple reinforcements came to the solitary cop's aide; before long the integrity of the barricade was restored.

[Video of Glass taken by Alex Ross]

Philip Glass had already come and gone—having recited a brief excerpt from Act III of Satyagraha—before ticket-holders descending from balcony level at the Met could reach the Occupy group. If at first it seemed depressing to realize that one could not attend both "events" on the same evening, the crowd did its best to erase that inside/outside distinction by repeating Glass's excerpt several times, in the by-now well-storied "mic check" fashion, with waves of sound fanning out over the expanse of Lincoln Center Plaza. To occupy with a physical presence is only one method. Sound can occupy, too. "Thank you to the people on the other side of the fence for joining us," the crowd said, as the Occupation roughly doubled in size after a period of steady accretion on the other side of the police-patrolled fence.

Then many opera-goers simply jumped the barricade. Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, seen earlier at the orchestra-level of the Met, took the long way around and joined the right flank of the group. Quickly recognized, they then began a very cute, older-couple's conversation about whether to accept an invitation to be "wedged" toward the center and placed "on stack" to speak.

"I don't feel comfortable being 'the guy,' but I'll say something if it'll help things," Reed said.

"We could say we support the 99% one-hundred percent," Anderson suggested.

A tall man in a black hoodie helped lead Reed and Anderson deeper into the crowd. Give the celebrity couple points for patience; it took almost an hour for them to be heard, on one of the first for-real wintry nights in New York so far this season. Anderson spoke first, not long after a young man who said he'd been arrested at Zuccotti and thought cops generally "horrid." She took a different (if familiar) tack, saying that police were properly part of an ideal movement ("our colleagues and our friends"). She also asked the crowd to think of ways to talk to those "who are not necessarily your friends" about the Occupy movement.

When Reed spoke, he seemed both angrier about the barricades ("I've never been more ashamed," he said, to be a Brooklyn-born artist), as well as more conditional in his affection for the police. "The police are our army," he said, in a subtle rebuke to Mayor Bloomberg's claims of ownership, before saying "I want to be friends" with the cops—as though it were up to them to earn that friendship.

Several of the non-famous speakers were even better. One older man, who sported a thick, Eastern Europe-sounding accent, made a useful point about the act of imposition suggested by an occupation. Arguing that the truth-force of nonviolent protest "starts in the street and moves into the artistic and intellectual space," he suggested a common cause between the Occupy group and Satyagraha as an opera. In this account, it was the police who were occupying a space unjustly, by keeping the two apart. "So we demand that the police occupation of our artistic space be ended immediately," he concluded.

More than a few speakers seemed to want to claim the mantle of Satyagraha's generally agreed-to awesomeness for themselves while decrying a contemporary classical music establishment from positions of frankly obvious ignorance. "Opera is expensive…. Only wealthy people can experience this wonderful artform," one young woman sighed, as though crushed by her failed but honest attempts to do so.

It bears repeating: at the Met, the most expensive opera tickets are indeed expensive, but you can stand behind the orchestra section—or even sit at the upper reaches of the house—for less than the cost of an IMAX showing at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 multiplex up the road. This persistent fiction of "elitism," and contemporary classical music's supposed inaccessibility, is one of the strongest propagandistic tools ever devised by the titans of corporate pop culture. They would prefer you not ever cost-compare a Family Circle seat to Satyagraha alongisde a 3D screening of Transformers 3.

Resentment directed toward a class of experience whose accessibility remains a matter of loose suppression is, in turn, the tool of social conservatives who hate public arts funding as much as they dig budget-busting tax cuts for the rich. Were we to realize a more progressive tax code, America might even be able to establish a public arts infrastructure that could more easily do without the ego-boosting contributions from the likes of the Koch family. In the meantime, we can take a page from Adbusters' "every dollar spent is a vote" ethos and decide what do with the $20 bills that we do control. Among the populist moves the Met has made in recent years is its "Live in HD" program, beamed to movie theaters in areas of the country that may not have so many top-flight opera houses currently operating. Though apt to pursue safe programming bets that sate the desire of traditional opera fans, the Met's administration places the occasional bet on a piece of radical culture like Satyagraha, which played in movie theaters on November 19th. That broadcast will have an encore next Wednesday, December 7th. It's a good time to be reminded that not all forms of cultural occupation necessitate standing out in the cold.

Seth Colter Walls is a culture critic and reporter for Slate, the Village Voice, the Washington Post, Capital New York, and also a contributing writer to XXL Magazine. Photos and video by Brian Perkins.

14 Comments / Post A Comment

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> #operaisnotjustforthe1%/OLDS!!!! "It bears repeating: at the Met, the most expensive opera tickets are indeed expensive, but you can stand behind the orchestra section—or even sit at the upper reaches of the house—for less than the cost of an IMAX showing at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 multiplex up the road. This persistent fiction of "elitism," and contemporary classical music's supposed inaccessibility, is one of the strongest propagandistic tools ever devised by the titans of corporate pop culture."

Brian (#115)

Right on SCW. I was there last night too. There were a few piss-elegant people taking "look at me with these retards" pictures and a few OWSers yelling condescending things like "Are you a fan of nonviolent protest? Well there's something real happening right now!!," (something!), but where I ended up standing, for the most part, when the wave of opera goers met the barricades it felt like two hands meeting and interlocking fingers. Very cool.

Also partial view Met tickets are a fucking steal.

ted_gordon@twitter (#187,694)

Seth, I think you're absolutely on point. I tried to get "on stack" to speak against the opera-elitism myth but they seemed to skip over my name… it's a shame that so many people (including the eloquent man with the MLK mien & glasses) used the "expensive" ticket prices to position opera as a "1%" art. (I paid $12.50)

It also bears noting that Bloomberg IS indeed a financial sponsor of the Met– he (or whoever calls the philanthropic shots at Bloomberg LP) sponsors outreach and education programs, not the general fund, not the "Golden Horseshoe," not the patron's circle. The tea party conspiracy-style attacks on "Bloomberg's 'Gandhi' opera" pain me. Institutional arts funding is a gigantic, complicated beast… Bloomberg "funded" this opera only as much as the NEA "funded" Wojnarowicz at the Smithsonian.

It's awesome that the Met chose to revive this production, when many standard rep operas reinforce and normalize elitism, misogyny, and racism. Now if we could only get donors to ALSO give to smaller companies developing new works by contemporary composers…

chrisnyc1 (#187,721)

Snackychocoloate, I think you miss the point. The prime seats are indeed for the elite. They symbolically represent the socioeconomic stratification in this country. The so called cheap seats necessitate binoculars just to to see the tops of heads, while the Bloomerber's enjoy a proximity that 99% of the people will never have. Regardless, there is a more profound distance which distinguishes opera as an art for the well to do. Music education is the first thing to be cut from public school budgets, in order to preserve entitlements for the wealthy. How many public school children in New York City therefore develop an appreciation or understanding of opera, yet alone so called "new music." Indeed, these are peculiar to the 1%, which keep the tradition alive privately at the intellectual expense of the 99%. I doubt a single mother making minimum wage would pay hundreds of dollars on high art. Furthermore, I doubt she would have been exposed to opera, ballet, symphonic music, or art had she attended public schools. Opera, therefore, is the manifestation of social and economic stratification. It is designed by elites for the elites, and funded by elite. The $12.50 nose bleed seats does nothing to bridge the gap between those that have and those that do not. BRAVO to Occupy Lincoln Center. They were the true stars of the evening. Best yet, their performance cost nothing to attend, and is ideologically accessible to all.

Brian (#115)

@chrisnyc1 YOU were obviously not holding my hand last night outside. Let's go to the opera together. The sound is as good if not better in those $12.50 seats, and you can use my binoculars. Sometimes if I don't have any, a stranger will even pass me his.

ted_gordon@twitter (#187,694)

@chrisnyc1 Let's do a little comparison, shall we? Satyagraha: cheapest ticket is $10 (for standing, $12.50 for family circle). Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark: cheapest ticket is $99. (And that gets you a MUCH narrower seat.)

There is an entire department of the Met Guild devoted to education and outreach, and even though it's "funded by Bloomberg", it DOES enable public school students to go to the opera for a very low cost. (I was one of them!)

For most standard rep productions, the social custom is to buy a $10 standing ticket, and after the first intermission, to take any open seats on the orchestra level. Everyone does it (if it's not a sold-out show), and there is no shame or intimidation by ushers.

"I doubt a single mother making minimum wage would pay hundreds of dollars on high art. [...] It is designed by elites for the elites, and funded by elite." It's a slippery slope, you know… if not opera, then what/which/whose art is "for the 99%"?

1.) I get a strong feeling that YOU have decided to stand on the outside while making judgements of those inside. I don't mean that because you literally are outside. I mean You use terms like elite very easily as a way to seperate yourself from others. Look a little deeper and you'll find that many in the %99 also go to these shows, get dressed up and for a few hours here and there like to be taken away from other parts of our lives. Our dollars although not as many as Bloombergs also help companies like the MEt function. In fact when it comes down to it when we don't show up it matters. We have a voice too. Don't belittle it just because its not what you understand.

2.) I am part of the %99 and I have sat in the prime seats at the ballet, musicals, symphonys and plays. For most of that I never paid more than $20. IF I did it was a choice. I have also sat in the side or upper level seats. Eithier way I am happy. A true fan will sit in nose bleeds. I have gotten to hear some of the most beautiful music, see the greatest of dancers and talk about some amzing plays the morning after. My soul and mind are fed by these experiences. It also has allowed me to connect with a wide vaerity of people in a variety ways.

3.) When I visted New York I was put on an email list which still sends me info on FREE(that's right) and very cheap shows in non typical venues. These include smaller companies and groups that might not get the attention the met does. It also has performers who are connected with larger companies. This is how a single mother(or single father.) might introduce themselves and thier children to the arts. One can go to any library and find CDS and Dvds of operas, dance, and theatre. Even ones with works on par with MET. I've seen Faust, Porgy and BEss and Candide among others. Art comes in many packages. we can decide which one we accept. The Met is one example, but dig and you'll easily find many others.

4.) I guess when it comes down to it if you one has made thier mind up that they can't be a part of something then they never will. I have friends who refuse to go to shows with me. I offer free tickets whenever I can. I tell them to come as they are. I try to put them at ease when the fear they wont understand. They aren't comfortable with they don't know. They make it about everyone and everyting else, but ultimately its about them. That's one thing and I'm okay with that. I'm not okay with someone who hasn't really looked deciding for the rest of us what's inside.

stray (#11,335)

It should probably be noted that the (new) Met as designed was a product of the Great Society — the same impetus that created PBS — and that's why there are 4000 seats in there instead of 800. And in the interests of fairness, it should probably also be mentioned that Agnes Varis and Karl Leichtman, 1%ers who partly subsidized the Satyagraha production, also subsidize a whole lot of $20 orchestra seats.

Brian (#115)

@stray It should probably be noted that we built this city on rock and roll.

stray (#11,335)

@Brian And yet it has been posited that there is no difference between Thailand and Krummville.

Sean Murray@twitter (#187,818)

I attended the opera (on a $20 rush ticket) and exited after Glass appeared onstage and the applause had ended. When I got down to the plaza, the police were still not letting operagoers approach the barricade, and in fact I witnessed a man (not in a suit) get arrested for simply walking down the steps attempting to reach the OWS protesters (who I joined on the sidewalk). It was only after most people had left that the police allowed the two groups to meet.

As to the cost and accessibility of opera at the met: their outreach and education programs fall short. Student tickets cost $25-35 (for good seats, but why are they more expensive than rush orchestra seats?), are only for limited shows, and are only available to students under 29. The existing school outreach program leaves a vast number of empty seats at final dress rehearsals that could be made available to college students or members of the public at little or no cost. I am a PhD student in music history at CUNY, and the one time (the I know of) the Met offered a block of dress rehearsal tickets to Graduate Center students, they were all snapped up in hours, and used. And the cost of an IMAX ticket (or even cheap tix at the met) is often prohibitive if you are going to grad school full time, working full-time for CUNY teaching, and making 16-18K on fellowship. I have tried taking my undergraduate students to performances through the met outreach program, but even though the met will allow universities to participate in the school outreach program, the schedules don't fit class times and my sense is that very few area universities are participating. If they allowed college students to attend dress rehearsals on their own schedule rather than as a group (they issue blocks of tickets to the instructor), many, many more area college students could enjoy the opera. Yes, you can go to the met on a budget. But the organization could be doing much more for the community without straining their existing resources.

Brian (#115)

@Sean Murray@twitter Come ON. You're not even trying.

NOMAD@twitter (#188,934)

The Occupy Movement setting up shop at Lincoln Center is an interesting event to have transpired. A central point that is true about wealthy non-profit arts organizations is that they are deemed public charities, yet they are almost entirely funded by a small cadre of donors and controlled by a select group of board members. Thus, these organizations can barely be called public when donors selectively divert their money, in the form of tax-deductible contributions, in effect garnering control absent the government with no accountability. Who is the arbiter of what is in the public's interest? Rich people who want an opera company under the guise of a charitable mission. If somebody can quantify a humanitarian interest beyond what this small group of people wants, I am all ears. The author makes a salient point in that this could be remedied by having more government funding and infrastructure to support the arts, but I go back to my original point; who wants the Met? Certainly not most people in America, even if they can shell out out the money for the cheap seats.

"This persistent fiction of "elitism," and contemporary classical music's supposed inaccessibility, is one of the strongest propagandistic tools ever devised by the titans of corporate pop culture."

Yup – and it's also toxic that it's somehow "elitist" for artists, musicians and production staff in opera companies to have decent pay and conditions. Needs to be said, unfortunately.

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