by Seth Colter Walls
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.