Following Einstein on the Beach by an interval of five years, Philip Glass' second operatic venture, Satyagraha, was more lucid in its structure and scope than its delightfully fragmentary and often unintelligible predecessor; it refined and tempered the musico-dramatic experiments from the first opera to create a vivid and moving theatrical experience. Although Einstein on the Beach created an international buzz and made Glass a celebrity virtually overnight, its monumental scale made it financially problematic and left Glass with little money. While working as a plumber and cab driver, Glass looked in vain for a new commission from an American opera company; finally it was the Netherlands Opera that provided him the opportunity to produce a new work, on the condition that it would be a "real opera" -- that is, one that would have more coherent plot than Einstein and that would be scored for the traditional operatic voices and orchestra.
For his subject matter, Glass returned to an idea that had been rejected by Einstein on the Beach collaborator Robert Wilson: Gandhi. As in Einstein, Glass chose not to attempt an all-encompassing narrative, but rather offered what he called a "portrait opera" of the famous political figure. The opera focuses on an early period in Gandhi's life, when a year-long stint in South Africa as a legal aide led him into his life's work as an activist and political reformer. The philosophy of passive resistance that Gandhi developed during those years was given the name "Satyagraha," which translates (with some difficulty) as "truth-force" or "love-force." Recalling the kaleidoscopic quality of Einstein, Satyagraha moves easily through time and space, overseeing Gandhi's struggle for Indian freedom in South Africa from three outside perspectives. The first comes from Russian novelist and Nobel Prize winner Leo Tolstoy, who, according to Glass, had "the same combination of the political and the spiritual" as Gandhi. The overseer of the second act is Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian mystic and Nobel Prize-winning poet. Act Three is witnessed by Martin Luther King, Jr., who fought a battle for African Americans in the U.S. similar to the one Gandhi had fought for Indians in South Africa.
Despite the more conventional instrumental forces employed, Satyagraha maintains the streamlined sound Glass had developed with his ensemble of keyboards and winds. The orchestra for Satyagraha contains a full complement of strings (whereas Einstein had employed only a single violin), but the absence of brass and percussion and the inclusion of keyboards gives the orchestra Glass' unmistakable stamp. Likewise, the use of traditional operatic voices is overshadowed by the fact that they sing the text in the original Sanskrit, which reaches the untrained Western ear much as the numbers, solfège syllables, and ambiguous texts of Einstein on the Beach did: as a mesmerizing phonetic collage, underlaid by a pulsating, energetic score.