Wagner Dream: Buddhism from ancient India to Wales and England

Opening scene from Harvey's Wagner Dream (June 2013, Wales)

Opening scene from Harvey’s Wagner Dream (June 2013, performed by the Welsh National Opera)

Before the opera begins, a solitary figure in white robes walks purposefully out on to stage from the right, turns onto a raised platform, and sits, facing slightly away from the audience.

This is how Wagner Dream, a modern British opera, begins. The opera is based in two worlds, that of 1883 Venice and the last day in the life of Richard Wagner, and 5th century India and the romantic entanglement of a young outcast woman and the Buddha’s cousin and chief attendant, Ānanda.

The divide in time is rather creatively visualized, allowing both to exist on stage simultaneously by placing the scenes from Venice on a narrow strip of stage in front of (from the perspective of the audience) the orchestra pit. The scenes from ancient India, meanwhile, take place on and around the platform behind the orchestra. The divide is further accentuated by the Welsh National Opera’s director Pierre Audi’s decision to have the sung dialogue of the Buddhists placed in Pali, which is commonly described as the language of the Buddha, but is actually a term meaning ‘text’ – referring to the recorded teachings of the Buddha and his disciples. Meanwhile the spoken dialogue of Wagner and friends is in German. Surtitles (supertitles) translate both above the stage in English and Welsh. The use of the two languages helps move the audience both out of their own world and into the lives of the characters on the stage.

As you would guess, this is a bit of a niche opera. Four languages, three time periods (if you include the very modern use of minimalist stage sets and electronic sound effects), and the clashing of two very distant cultures as a 19th century German composer encounters ancient Indian ideas and stories. Again we might add our own time period as a third culture, in some ways as distant from Wagner as he finds himself from the Buddha. And, to further complicate things, the story that was placed in Pali itself comes from Eugene Burnouf’s 1844 work, “Introduction à l’Histoire du Buddhisme Indien” (recently translated into English here), which is based on a Sanskrit text, the Divyāvadāna (Divine Stories) an anthology of Buddhist tales dating to around the 2nd Century CE.

The framing story, that of Wagner, his wife, a young English lover, and a doctor, has the great composer agonizing over an unfinished piece of work. Wagner had read Burnouf’s work and was so fascinated by it that he planned an opera based on it. The opera was to be called Die Sieger (The Victors) and was composed – though never completed – between 1856 and 1858. As he is stricken with a heart attack he is visited by the Buddha Vairocana, who implores him to make the right decision at this oncoming moment of death. In his dying moments, Wagner retraces the love story of the outcast woman Prakriti and Ānanda, in which the Buddha eventually allows a chaste union, ordaining her into the community/Sangha.

As Stephen Walsh of the Arts Desk wrote:

To describe in detail the many levels of Harvey’s score would take a much longer review than this. Both musically and dramaturgically the opera is a palimpsest: layer on layer, from Harvey’s own culminating work and death, down through Wagner’s, and on into the virtual world of the Buddha and the hidden reality of Schopenhauer’s noumenon, the profound truth which, he maintained, we can only ever glimpse through music.

In the movement between layers, one is drawn in to parallels, either real or imagined, between

  • Prakriti and Ānanda’s love affair and Wagner’s own with the young singer Carrie Pringle, who appears in the opera to comfort him, sparking discord with his wife;
  • The motif of giving up / letting go; as Wagner must give up his ambition to complete his work and accept death and Prakriti must give up romantic ideas to truly be with her love Ānanda;
  • and perhaps even eugenics or ideas of purity of blood; as Prakriti is an outcaste, denounced by a Brahmin in the play and Wagner himself is known to have held some of the racist and antisemitic views common to Germany of his time;
And there is likely more that will catch the trained eye of Wanger fans or those trained in aspects of Buddhism that I know very little about. But all in all, the motions back and forth, and it’s accompanying drama, was fluid and engrossing and I found myself drawn in to both stories, empathizing just as much with Prakriti and Ānanda as for Wagner in his struggle to face death.

As a student of early Buddhism, it is exciting to see a work of art such as this featuring both a story from the Buddha’s life and lengthy dialogue in Pali. Richard Gombrich, the man who translated Harvey’s English into Pali, once stated that we in Buddhist Studies are at least 100 years behind our fellow scholars in Biblical Studies, and I agree. We are still relatively few in number and those working hard on the texts rarely communicate well with those doing archaeological work; and then there are those who seem to do well by interpreting everyone else through postmodern psychoanalysis or other such contemporary theories.

So, popularizations such as this, as niche as they might be, are a welcome contribution to the world’s understanding of – and hopefully interest in – Buddhism.

For a couple more reviews that come from writers better versed in the arts/opera see here and here. I saw the opera on Friday the 8th of June at Cardiff’s Wales Millennium Centre; the opera can be seen for the last time in this run tomorrow in Birmingham – see here for tickets. I hope to have an interview with my friend, Caroline Barker, who acted as the Pali pronunciation coach for the opera, in the next week or two.


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