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Home / Latest News / Welsh National Opera revives a 2,000-year language as it celebrates Wagner

Welsh National Opera revives a 2,000-year language as it celebrates Wagner

Staging a rarely-performed opera by Wagner to mark his bicentenary wasn’t enough for the artistic  director of Welsh National Opera.

So alongside the fairytale  piece Lohengrin – the opening of which will be attended  by the Prince of Wales – David  Pountney is also premiering a new work imagining the German composer as he penned  his final opera.

And while Wagner Dream  by Jonathan Harvey is a 21st  century piece, it contains a  2,000-year-old language.

Premiered in Luxembourg  in 2007 – WNO’s production is  the British premiere – it reveals how on his Venetian  deathbed in 1883, Wagner had  a vision of an opera about the Buddhist faith. 

The fantasy takes inspiration from Wagner’s biography together with Harvey’s own  ideas of what might have been had the work been created.

The ancient Indian language of Pali is the best surviving clue as to how people  spoke in the Buddha’s day but  few in the modern world are  able to speak it.

The language of daily life  and of common people was  derived from Sanskrit, but it  was much simpler. While  there is no exact record of that  language, it is known that Pali  was very close to it. 

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

In the opera, Wagner and his  circle will speak and sing in  German while the Buddhist  characters will sing in Pali.

Harvey died last December  and Pountney says this was  something he 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,”  he says.

“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.”

Among the singers taking  up the challenge is Welshman  Richard Wiegold, who’s making his debut with WNO.

Originally from Caerphilly,  he worked as a professional  cellist before deciding on a  change of career when he  turned 30.

Now the bass is singing the  role of Vairochana, the Buddha  who ‘guides’ Wagner.

“I’ve always wanted to sing  with Welsh National Opera  and it’s so exciting to be working on this project. The character I play is a Buddha associated with the concept of  emptiness. Most people I play  have extreme levels of emotion. This character doesn’t go  through emotions, he’s an enigma,  so it’s a physically interesting part as well.”

Wagner Dream is the final  offering in the new WNO season, which opens at the Wales  Millennium Centre in Cardiff  on May 23 with a performance  of Lohengrin, which will be  attended by Prince Charles.

And as well as his role in  Wagner Dream, 45-year-old  Wiegold – who trained as a  cellist at the Royal Northern  College in Manchester before  returning to train as a singer –  is understudying in Lohengrin.

He says that despite starting  out as a cellist, during which  time he played with some of  the country’s top orchestras  and chamber groups, as he  approached his 30th birthday  he realised he needed to pursue his passion for singing.

He’s already making a name  for himself for his rich bass  voice and the role of Green  Knight in Lynne Plowman’s  opera Gwyneth And The  Green Knight for Music  Theatre Wales was written for  him.

“When I was just nine I  could sing Paul Robeson  songs,” he says, referring to  the African-American singer.

“I later realised that it was  singing that moved me the  most – I came alive when I just  talked about singing.

“When my voice broke it  was very, very deep so I didn’t  really think I had a singing  voice as an adult.”

While he’s now enjoying a  successful career in opera,  Wiegold admits that he rarely  plays the cello any more.

“I keep meaning to play it –  it annoys me that I can’t just sit  down and play like I used to –  my fingers are no longer strong  enough. But next time I have a  few weeks at home, I shall  probably have a bit of a practice again.”

But in the meantime, he will  be brushing up on an ancient  language instead as he looks  forward to commemorating  Wagner with his WNO colleagues.

Wagner Dream is at the  Wales Millennium Centre,  Cardiff on June 6 7. For  tickets, call 029 2063 6464  or visit www.wno.org.uk

DIARY DATES

Lohengrin

What? WNO opens its  latest season with a new  production of Wagner’s  fairytale opera, Lohengrin,  as part of its celebration of  Wagner’s bicentenary.  The music in this rarely  performed opera includes  the famous Bridal Chorus  which people know as  Here Comes the Bride.

Where? Wales  Millennium Centre, Cardiff  on May 23, 26 29 and  June 1 8

Madam Butterfly

What? WNO’s classic  production of Puccini’s  story of doomed love with  well-known heartbreaking  music – from the  rapturous love-duet to the  devastating One Fine Day.

Where? Wales  Millennium Centre, Cardiff  on May 28 and June 2 9

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