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On Opera’s Relation to Buddhism and Sufism

Monday Musing”, for Monday October 7, 2013

Volume III. No. 38/132

E9 Bayreuth  Margravial Opera Stage

Bayreuth Margravial Opera House

A Few Words About The Opera


How it Relates to Buddhism and Sufism

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

Yesterday, October 6, 2013 was the 413th anniversary of western opera (see below). The first opera, Orpheus (Orpheo) and Eurydice was composed by Jacobo Peri and performed at Piti Palace in Florence on October 6, 1600. This date marks the beginning of Western Opera. Before that earlier in late 1590’s there was an experimental composition named Daphne, and of course before all that there was Greek opera some 2000 years earlier. In 1607 Montverde re-wrote the same opera, Orpheo and Eurydice which remains in the repertoire after 406 years.  To observe the holy birth of the opera, here are some thoughts:

Why Opera?

There are four 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 gives 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 Piti 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 1670’s, 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 rained for 73 years. Lully gave us the French Overture and its dotted rhythm brings on grandeur, pomposity and majesty meant for Louis 14th. Other French composers followed: Jean-Philip Rameau, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Christoph Willibald Von Gluck, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Bizet etc. There are German, Russian, Chinese, and now many third world country operas. Also, there are lyric opera, grand opera, opera buffa and opera seria, just to name a few. I have chosen Carmen as an example of illustrating the power of the opera.

Carmen is an opera comic in four acts. It was written by Georges Bizet. He was a genius. Bizet 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 Goch 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 Mendelssohn 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 futility, cynical, cruel and at best deadly hatred of two sexes. Love translated in the horror proclaimed in 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 the 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.

Opera, Sufism and Buddhism:

One must read the 19th century German Philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) ,whose writings are very much imbued in Sufism and Buddhism to understand, “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(!) and who 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 and 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 half time 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. 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 Met’ 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 and Olivier Messiaen (I saw his Saint Francois D’Assie in Paris several months ago), and other composers. As a psychiatrist we try to help people with addiction. Addiction to opera is one addiction that I recommend.


*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 serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.


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