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Thursday, November 1, 2018

Interview with Satyagraha director Tilde Björfors

A conversation between dramatist Magnus Lindman and director Tilde Björfors

Lindman: So, how much is a circus director enjoying opera?

Björfors: I have come to appreciate that Glass’ music is perfect circus music. There’s something about this sense of the ecstatic, that the music is continuously reaching new heights with minor tweaks that suit the circus we are making here. There are plenty of similarities between circus and opera. They are two incredibly virtuosic art forms. Both try to make the impossible possible and cross the physical and perhaps mental borders of what we humans are capable of doing. We have a center for weightlessness in our brain that develops in the womb as we float around. And it is activated when we see people flying. A physical sensation that we otherwise have forgotten about.

Lindman: If we are to keep to the fetus stage, this also applies to opera. Voices… hearing is perhaps the first sense a child experiences in life. So, what does that have to do with us—a primal scene, a meeting between sound and weightlessness?

Björfors: Circus is about life and death, when you are going to perform the most difficult things, you must be so present in the moment that you are totally naked. And it’s the same thing with opera notes, too. When you are going to reach these notes—you go beyond the made-up, as it were. They are not intellectual art forms in the first instance, they are emotional, or physical...

Lindman: Perhaps we can say they are not bound by words alone. And this is especially so in Satyagraha. The libretto is in Sanskrit. An ancient Indian language that is spoken by very few people today. In other words, a language that you can guarantee almost nobody understands. It is a way to escape from the reasoning-based nature of the word—logos—and the demand by contemporary, or should we say Western people to always be able to understand what is going on. In which case, how are we going to be able to tell a story?

Björfors: I don’t see it as Philip Glass trying to tell the story of Ghandi’s life and history. His aim is more to understand Gandhi from the inside and that we through the music should experience these events and how this individual with his pathos of justice came to be.

Lindman: The libretto is a very carefully chosen selection of verses from the holy scripture Bhagavad-Gita. But rather than spoken lines, the verses in Sanskrit are given to different singers.

Björfors: We want to create order and stay in control. What Glass tries to do is to pull the rug from under us and so enable us to experience the story on another level.

Lindman: We are, however, going to translate certain verses in the production.

Björfors: This is to provide a sense of grounding in any case. But it is not the libretto as such that helps us to understand what is happening in the first place, it is more the story that emerges from the entirety. The situations Gandhi found himself in at that time are reflected in a script that is thousands of years older. And it is the same human dilemma that we are facing today, which means Satyagraha is always relevant. The actions I take today are reflected in future generations. These actions should not only do good in the here and now, but also in a broader and longer perspective.

Lindman: Glass is a very keen student of Indian philosophy and culture. And Satyagraha’s structure challenges our Western information mind set. What is meaning? What does it mean to understand?

Björfors: We are perhaps used to another form of storytelling. But Satyagraha’s structure is totally thought through. The more I work with it, the more I realize how thought through it is. What appears to be disordered is actually full of a different kind of order.

Lindman: We begin with the mythical battlefield. The meeting between the God Krishna and Arjuna, who in the case of the opera, becomes Gandhi. The situation that is the starting point for the Bhagavad-Gita. Where the fundamental question to act or not to act is posed.

Björfors: The three biographical acts then follow. They are not chronological, but we make the same journey three times, deeper and deeper each time. What Glass does, I think, is that via the spirit of Ghandi, he relates to that which has gone before us and that which lies ahead of us. We move through history through the same highs and lows, peaks and troughs, time and time again.

Lindman: Glass depicts this by naming the different acts after three historic fights for justice: Leo Tolstoy, the Russian author who preached non-violence and was labelled a Christian anarchist, Indian author and Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore, who fought against British colonial rule, and US civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. That was his thinking, when Glass composed the opera, 35 years ago. However, if we imagine a fourth act being written today. Who would you put in the heading for that?

Björfors: Naturally, I think to myself: where are all the women? I grew up in the 1970s and was very affected by the books about Katitzi written by the Swedish author Katarina Taikon. These stories depict questions of injustice, ignorance, and exclusion through the eyes of a child. Which got you thinking that it was also important to do things for other people, not just for yourself. Which is why one act could be named after Katarina Taikon, perhaps. We do not know today who the Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi of the future will be. Is he or she among the people who campaign for human rights around the world? We all have the chance to be the person who makes a difference. It could be you and it could be me.

Lindman: You usually refer to a Gandhi quote: “all through history, there have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they seem invincible. But in the end, they always fall. Always. Truth and love have always won.”

Björfors: Wanting truth and love is not given a high status in society today. For me, the meeting with Gandhi has reminded me of how much power this contains within it. It is perhaps far more feasible to hold fast to the philosophy of Satyagraha than to build walls and close borders.

—Magnus Lindman, Dramatist

© 2018 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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