for The New York Times on Oct. 4, 2008
ON the eve of battle Arjuna surveys the field in despair. The enemy battalions are thick with beloved kinsmen, teachers, comrades. His cause is just. But what is he to do? His charioteer urges him to embrace his duty.
Action is better than inaction, the charioteer argues. Nothing is better for a warrior than a legitimate battle. Either you will be killed and attain heaven, or you will prevail and enjoy life on earth. Finally the charioteer assumes his true form as Krishna: time, destroyer of worlds, “the existent and the nonexistent.” Kill your enemies, he commands. “Be the instrument, for I have already killed them.” Arjuna resolves to do Krishna’s bidding.
Written in Sanskrit more than 2,000 years ago, the Bhagavad-Gita, has been called the bible of Indian civilization. It forms a 700-verse episode in the oceanic “Mahabharata,” which in India has served as a source for drama for centuries. In the West, Peter Brook adapted “The Mahabharata” for the stage in epic style. And on Nov. 5 the Brooklyn Academy of Music presents the Bhagavad-Gita in the intimate guise of a 70-minute chamber opera, “Arjuna’s Dilemma,” by Douglas C. Cuomo.
Summarized as above, the Gita may seem no more than a hawk’s apologia for war. But by universal consent it is much more. Whether as a personal guide to right action or as cosmic metaphor, it has proved inexhaustible, transcending its origins, speaking to every age.
A recent title search on Amazon.com turned up 10,332 listings in English alone, including study guides and commentaries. New translations appear constantly. The latest is a bilingual edition from the Clay Sanskrit Library, which presents the Bhagavad-Gita in the gory context of “Bhishma,” the sixth of 18 books of “The Mahabharata.”
Mr. Cuomo, 50, first encountered the Gita in college, as many Americans do, and reconnected with it in the late 1990s, while looking for a text that could involve an Indian singer, Amit Chatterjee, and Western musicians.
Mr. Cuomo came to the project with appropriately eclectic credentials. A former jazz guitarist with a degree in world music, he began his career as a composer combining original music and sound design for downtown theaters. His best-known credit, and certainly his most lucrative one, is the Latin-tinged theme music for “Sex and the City.”
“As soon as I began thinking about the Bhagavad-Gita again, I was very excited,” he said recently. “There were great opportunities for emotional singing, a real spiritual element and a level of metaphor that was greatly appealing to me. I felt I could examine the philosophy in a musical way. Music gave me a way of naming the nameless.”
As Krishna, Mr. Chatterjee improvises segments of the score in raga style, in Sanskrit. The American tenor Tony Boutté, a Baroque and contemporary specialist, sings Arjuna, also in Sanskrit. A quartet of female voices serves as chorus, sometimes amplifying Arjuna’s voice, sometimes Krishna’s, in English. The instrumental writing, requiring 12 performers, gives special prominence to the tenor saxophone and tabla drums. The Innova label has already released the score on CD, to favorable notices.
Mr. Cuomo is not the first contemporary American opera composer to find inspiration in the Bhagavad-Gita. To cite an example near at hand, John Adams, 60, uses Arjuna’s awe-struck speech at the sight of Krishna in his world-devouring form at the climax of “Doctor Atomic,” which tells of the creation of the atom bomb.
Though brief, the passage from the Gita is by no means incidental. The physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the bomb and hero of the opera, knew his Sanskrit. When he first saw the new weapon in action, the apocalyptic words echoed in his mind, and so they do in the opera, in English.
Three seasons ago in San Francisco, in the original staging of the opera by Peter Sellars (who also wrote the libretto), the choral setting of Arjuna’s text was an emotional high point. It should prove so again on Oct. 13, when “Doctor Atomic” reaches the Metropolitan Opera in a new production by the filmmaker Penny Woolcock.
Last season, with the Met premiere of Philip Glass’s opera “Satyagraha,” audiences were confronted with a more oblique yet more comprehensive use of the Bhagavad-Gita. First performed in Rotterdam in 1980, “Satyagraha” belongs to the nonlinear period of Mr. Glass’s creative life; the title translates roughly as truth-force, a concept developed by Gandhi in his campaign of passive resistance. The action dramatizes Gandhi’s efforts in South Africa to repeal the Black Act, which restricted the movements of non-Europeans, virtually enslaving other populations, both native and immigrant. But the narrative spelled out in the stage directions has no explicit basis in the “dialogue,” which consists entirely of passages from the Bhagavad-Gita. (The libretto was a joint effort by Mr. Glass and Constance DeJong, who assembled the vocal texts.)
That few if any in the audience could follow what the characters were singing concerned Mr. Glass not at all. To the contrary.
“I liked the idea of further separating the vocal text from the action,” Mr. Glass, now 71, explained last season in a comment still posted on the Met’s Web site (metopera.org). “In this way, without an understandable text to contend with, the listener could let the words go altogether. The weight of ‘meaning’ would then be thrown onto the music, the designs and the stage action. Secondly, since none of the national languages was going to be used, Sanskrit could then serve as a kind of international language for this opera.”
At some level the strategy must have worked. In the quarter century since the premiere in Rotterdam, “Satyagraha” has established itself as one of his deepest and most affecting achievements.
All the same, one may wonder whether the weight of meaning Mr. Glass speaks of depends in any way on his choice of text. At the Met projected titles periodically indicated the general drift of the chanting. A random glance at the libretto turns up a proposition like this: “The world is not for the doubting man.” Or this: “If I were not to do my work, these worlds would fall to ruin.”
Perhaps music — assisted by design and stage action — is capable of conveying such messages by a kind of osmosis. More likely, the trance-inducing strains Mr. Glass specializes in lull the mind to meditation, allowing thought to slow down and expand in many directions. Under these circumstances even babble may seem strangely significant, and a few well-chosen words of wisdom may acquire weighty significance. Mr. Boutté, who comes to Mr. Cuomo’s Arjuna with experience as Mr. Glass’s Gandhi, describes that process from the performer’s point of view.
“I’ve had the good fortune to live with the Sanskrit texts,” he said recently. “I started out feeling like I was just singing nonsense syllables. Then I began to remember the words from scene to scene. Now that I recognize words from text to text and know what they mean, they have great resonance for me.”
Whatever spell the poetry and philosophy of the Bhagavad-Gita cast on Mr. Glass as he composed “Satyagraha,” they have in the end been subsumed into subtext, which is to say, into the music: omnipresent yet beyond a listener’s grasp. Within the dense cross-referential weave of “Doctor Atomic,” the Bhagavad-Gita is but a thread, though one of paramount importance. In “Arjuna’s Dilemma,” the sacred text is everything: foreground, background, action, touchstone.
For Arjuna’s first desolate solo, Mr. Cuomo strips the accompaniment to the barest essentials: the beat of the tabla, underscored by a drone that seems almost subliminal. “For the ‘Destroyer of Worlds’ section,” he admitted, “it would have been nice to have a larger complement. But I made a practical decision relatively early on about the size of the ensemble and just stuck to that. Even though an ensemble of a dozen is relatively small, for the venues we want to play in, it’s still relatively large.”
The cosmic scale of “The Mahabharata” notwithstanding, distilling the Bhagavad-Gita to chamber proportions presented no insurmountable obstacle. As the historian Ranajit Guha notes in a foreword to the Clay Sanskrit Library edition of “Bhishma,” the “universalist pretension” of the epic is “just a mythic conceit thanks to which a village dispute has been rhetorically blown up into subcontinental proportions.” To put it another way, the grain of sand at the core of the stupendous pearl is individual experience. This truth applies with particular force to the Gita, where the cast of characters is pared down to a single man and the god in whom all being rests. What could be more intimate? What could be more cosmic?
Mr. Cuomo takes courage from the very majesty of the source material. “What the Bhagavad-Gita precisely means is mysterious, and there’s a big history of commentary,” he said. “So it’s O.K. to add my own. I don’t have to pretend to hold the key.”