A 2,000-year-old language to be revived in Jonathan Harvey's opera 'Wagner Dream'

New production to feature an ancient language that the Buddha would have spoken

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Wagner DreamWelsh National Opera’s new production of Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream will mix German with the ancient Indian language of Pali, which dates back over 2,000 years to the time of the Buddha.

In this opera, Harvey (himself a Buddhist) took as a starting point Wagner’s preoccupation – in his final days in Venice in the 1850s – with Buddhism and themes of spiritual exploration. It also includes elements of a fragmentary opera sketch by Wagner, Die Sieger (The Victors) about two lovers who are helped by the Buddha.

The opera uses ancient Indian characters and also features members of the Wagner household at the end of his life in 19th-century Venice. Using German for the Wagner characters and Pali for the Indian ones is part of Harvey’s own vision, as director David Pountney points out:

‘In discussing this with Jonathan Harvey before his death [in 2012], we identified our aim as seeking to enhance and clarify the cultural dialogue which is the centrepiece of this opera. This brings together a giant of the western musical tradition, Richard Wagner, with ideas and narrative elements from the Buddhist tradition. We felt that the impact of this cultural dialogue would be enhanced by letting each of these two worlds speak in its own language…’

Welsh National Opera’s head of music, Russell Moreton has been working with Professor Richard Gombrich, founder-president of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, to translate sections of the opera into Pali. The ancient language is close to the language that would have been spoken at the time of the Buddha in the 5th century BC.

This production of Harvey’s Wagner Dream will open on 6 June at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff with further performances in Cardiff and Birmingham. For further details visit the Welsh National Opera website.

Photo: Clärchen & Matthias Baus