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Wagner opera to be revived in a dead language

Jonathan Harvey’s opera Wagner Dream will be performed in Pali, the language of Buddha 2,000 years ago.  David Pountney, director of Welsh National Opera, has decided it is the most appropriate vernacular for the UK staged premiere of Harvey’s opera. Academics have rendered Harvey’s English text into Pali. Wagner, however, gets to sing in German.

Intrigued? So are we. Here’s the release. The show’s next moonth.



Rare language is in the spotlight for Wagner Dream première


A 2,000 year old language that the Buddha would have spoken will feature in Welsh National Opera’s British staged première of Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream this summer.  The ancient Indian language of Pali is the best surviving clue as to how people spoke in the Buddha’s day and the oldest source for his words but few in the modern world are able to speak it.

The Buddha lived in North East India in the 5th century BC. The religion and culture around him were dominated by brahmins, a hereditary class of male priests. The language of their texts and rituals was Sanskrit, which means ‘elaborated language’. The language of daily life and of common people was derived from Sanskrit, but it was much simpler. No-one wrote anything down in these days and so there is no exact record of that language, but it is known that Pali was very close to it.  In order to be widely understood the Buddha refused to use Sanskrit and subsequently the ‘Pali Canon’, which contains the earliest records of his sermons and sayings, has been preserved in Pali for over two thousand years.


WNO’s Head of Music, Russell Moreton has worked closely with Professor Richard Gombrich, Founder-President of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, to translate the opera from the original English libretto into Pali.

However, this wasn’t always a straightforward task as Professor Gombrich explains:


“Translating the English libretto into Pali brought some amusing challenges. First, there are few short words in Pali, so in some places we had to split the musical notes in order for them to fit. Then, the English text contains howlers: guns in ancient India, for example, and pubs, and tea – none of which existed there then. So we had to make changes. I also felt obliged to insert, very briefly, some real Buddhist doctrine when the Buddha himself is speaking.”


In the opera, Wagner and his circle will speak and sing in German while the Buddhist characters will sing in Pali.  David Pountney says this was something the composer was keen to see happen:

“In discussing this with Jonathan Harvey before his death, 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 rather than being confused by both being rendered in a third language, English.”

Professor Gombrich says the study of the language is in crisis worldwide:


“It is what our government labels a ‘minority subject’, so when the cuts come, as they constantly do, it is first for the chop. Neither Oxford nor Cambridge now has a post in Pali, and no British university offers a degree devoted to the subject. The situation in other Western countries is as bad or even worse, as all governments agree that they should not subsidise the study of a subject which brings no direct economic benefit.


“Those Buddhists, in Sri Lanka and parts of South East Asia, who use Pali as their scriptural language often know some Pali texts by heart, but hardly ever understand the language thoroughly. I teach it in classes all over the world, but how much can one person do? At the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies we are trying to raise funds to create a permanent lectureship in Pali, so that there will still be a few people in the world who can read the Buddha’s message in the original. Please go to our website and contribute anything you can to keep this great tradition alive.”


The first performance of Wagner Dream is on Thursday 6 June at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff with further performances in Cardiff and Birmingham.

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  1. Christopher Oakmount says:

    I would often prefer listening to operas in languages I don’t understand; it makes the music transcend the not often too brilliant plot and lyrics more easily.
    Anyone who knows of recordings of Korngold’s Tote Stadt or Webber’s Phantom of the Opera in French? ;-)
    I’m also sure Wagner’s Ring would sound amazing in old Saxon or old Norse …

  2. Gary Carpenter says:

    In my opinion, WNO are making a big mistake in not bringing their more adventurous operas to Liverpool -particularly this piece. I assume this is because WNO marketing are operating on a stereotype that assumes that Scousers wouldn’t come. In fact, given the presence of two universities with active composer-led music departments, LIPA and the proximity of the RNCM and Manchester University (both with substantial new music profiles) the chances are that they would attract their biggest audiences. if they programmed out of the vacation periods that is.

    • Halldor says:

      @Gary Speaking as a Scouser and an opera fan, I suspect WNO are simply learning from their experience of bringing James MacMillan’s “The Sacrifice” to Liverpool in (I think) 2008. Even with the Capital of Culture year to peg it on, I understand that the result at the box office was extremely disappointing.

      From my acquaintance with them, the WNO marketing team are not the kind of people to make assumptions based on stereotypes; they spend much of their time fighting lazy assumptions about their own “regional” status (such as the London-based critic who attacked them, earlier this year, for “wasting” money taking “Lulu to Llandudno”). But in the current funding climate, major publicly-funded arts companies have to be seen to be prudent. If there’s a perception (and I couldn’t honestly say if there was) that taking their more demanding repertoire to Liverpool is throwing good money after bad, it might not be wholly without foundation.

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