On Opera, Buddhism and Sufism

“Monday Musings” for Monday April 25, 2016
Volume VI, No. 17/277

Tooth Relic Temple_Singapore Palais_Garnier

Tooth Relic Temple ,Singapore                             Palais Garnier, Paris


By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA

Why Opera?

There are five powerful instruments used for introspection and research on self. One can learn more about one’s self through psychoanalysis which is usually very expensive and time consuming. The other tools are studying history, theater and poetry. The last but certainly not the least is understanding and studying opera. Opera, a combination of words and music, offers us the most comprehensive and potent introspectoscope. Opera give the participant an opportunity to become aware of one’s unconscious in dynamic gradation. Do we as viewers possess at least some of the evil and sexual identity confusion that eclipses Iago and Othello (in opera Otello)? Are we endowed with passion that made Don Jose kill Carmen? Are we capable of transcendence that come with the Zoroastrian parables in Wagner’s Ring Cycles? In order to get to know ourselves better, I believe opera should be an integral part every citizen’s cultural and intellectual diet. It is much less expensive that psychoanalysis, and while being intellectually stimulating, it is more enjoyable and entertaining.

History of Opera

Opera is an Italian word. It means work . In the late 16th Century, a group of Florentine scholars decided to get together every week and study the music and writings of the ancient Greek. They called themselves the Florentine Camarata. It was very much like our modern day book clubs, except that these people were very serious about their work. The culmination of these studies and discussions was Jacobo Peri’s composition of Orpheo which was performed at 8:00 PM, October 6, 1600, at Pitti Palace in Florence. Of course, in 1607, Claudio Monteverdi gave us his version of Orpheo. It marks the beginning of Opera. We have enjoyed 400 years of opera as result of the intense work of this group.

Types of Opera

Italian opera dominated Europe throughout the 16th and early 17th centuries. Around 1670s, French opera with its founder and inventor Jean Baptist Lully (1632-1687) emerged. Lully was an Italian orphan who immigrated to Paris at age 14. He rose to become the court composer for the Sun King, Louis 14th, who reigned for 73 years. Lully gave us the French Overture in which dotted rhythm brings on the grandeur, pomposity and majesty meant for Louis 14th. Other French composers followed: Jean-Philip Rameau, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Christoph Willibald Von Gluck, Giacomo Myerbeer, Bizet etc. There are German, Russian, Chinese, and now many third world country operas. Also, there is lyric opera, grand opera, opera buffa and opera seria, just to name a few. Here are several examples of how opera opens the door to self- exploration leading to self-knowledge.

I La Traviata

La Traviata is one of Verdi’s superb operas, exercising verismo, true to life emotions, hopes, and complex human relations. It exemplifies the theology of hope, redemption an possibilities.

The opera is in three acts set to an Italian libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. It takes as its basis the novel La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas, fils, published in 1848. It was first performed at the Teatro la Fenice in Venice, on March 6, 1853. The title La Traviata means literally The Woman Who Strayed, or perhaps more figuratively, The Fallen One. The original audience appears to have been puzzled by the fact that the opera had a contemporary setting. However, the opera has become immensely popular and a staple of the standard operatic repertoire. It is third on Opera America’s list of the 20 most-performed operas in North America, behind only Carmen, Madama Butterfly and La Bohème.

II Carmen

Carmen is an opera comic in four acts. It was written by Georges Bizet, a genius. He died penniless at age 38, exactly three months after Carmen was staged. Had he lived three more years, he would have reaped immense wealth because of Carmen’s success all over Europe. Perhaps Bizet and Van Gogh were soul brothers. They lived in poverty, yet after death, their work’s value increased immensely. Bizet knew music and composition. His musical compositions at age 17 easily compare to the music of both Mendelsohn and Mozart. His one act opera in 1857, “Le Docteur Miracle”, shows his mastery of operatic idiom at an early age. In Act II of Carmen, the accelerating gypsy dance is an orchestral tour de force in which dissonance and sliding harmonies paint the scene of Lilla Pastia’s underworld tavern. Bizet knew human nature. He was as keen as Shakespeare when it came to assessing human nature. The famed German philosopher, Fredrick Nietzsche, in an essay on Carmen, wrote that he saw the opera 21 times. “Every time I see Carmen I sit still for five hours, I become more patient which is the first step of true holiness…”

Carmen is a story about love, not of higher order, but as a futile, cynical, cruel and at best, deadly hatred of two sexes. Love is translated in the horror as proclaimed by Don Jose’s last cry “yes, I have killed her…I have killed my adored…” Carmen, the epitome of carnal desire, temptation and primal raw sexuality, is Eve and the serpent rolled in one. In Act III she sees her mortality in the cards that she and her gypsy friends were reading. She gave into her fate and led a reckless life. Don Jose, a decent and simple soldier when he first met Carmen, turns into a love crazed killer. He is Adam. He is Kane. He would not have been transformed into a killer if the violence and killing were not in him to start. There is a bit of Adam, though deeply hidden, in all of us. Don Jose is Adam. Jose’s unrestrained male sexuality and machismo ultimately caused his destruction.

Perhaps like Nietzsche, who claimed to become a better philosopher every time he sat through a performance of Carmen, we can see this very deeply moving and instructive work as the beginning of self-analysis and self-understanding.

Opera, Sufism and Buddhism

To read the 19th century German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) whose writings are very much imbued in Sufism and Buddhism: “To be, one must first not be…” Richard Wagner (1813-1883), the genius anti-Semitic German musician and composer of opera (he hated the word opera because it is an Italian word and he hated Italians! He called his work “Music Drama”) was a disciple of Schopenhauer. His operas, especially Tristan and Isolde, and the Ring Cycle consisting of four operas, 18 hours, are full of Zoroastrian parables, Buddhist reference to “nothingness” before becoming “something.”

This ruthless, racist and megalomaniacal genius not only composed his own operas, but wrote the libretto and conducted the work. His compositions are not just opera but an all encompassing Gesamtkunstwerk, like a Super Bowl halftime show!

The writings of Rumi, Shams Tabrizi and Baba Taher Oryan, all Persian Sufi Poets, assert the Buddhist notion of the issue of “being”, the western concept of which is called ontology. I am inserting an essay on opera from years ago to whet your appetite.

In my mind, opera continues to be the most complete art form. It has the greatest capacity for communication and impact per second of any other art form including my most favorite art form, classical music.

Room to Grow

What I wonder is when and where in NC we will see some modern operas the list of which is approaching 90. I have noticed and admired the New York Metropolitan Opera’s willingness to add some of the modern operas such as Cyrano de Bergerac with Placido Domingo as Cyrano, Sondra Radvanovsky (Roxanne), and librettist Henry Cain, this season. I yet to see any opera by Michael Tippett, Hans Verner Henze or Olivier Messiaen (I have seen his opera Saint Francois D’Assie in Paris), and other composers. I wish to introduce these ideas in our viewers’ mental space in the hope that they would support and encourage undertaking 20th century operas as we continue to honor and produce the traditional “workhorse” operas.


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He is a dramaturge. Received Raleigh Medal of Art in 2001, inducted to Raleigh Hall of Fame 2013 and elected Lifetime Trustee, North Carolina Symphony in 2015.


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