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
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
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