Author and contemporary Buddhist teacher Stephen Batchelor has entered the world of opera, writing the libretto for Mara: A Chamber Opera of Good and Evil.
Batchelor recently spoke to Tricycle about his involvement in the 75-minute opera, which premiers in Florence, South Carolina next month, and how the historical Buddha’s struggle with evil and suffering can appeal to a modern audience who might not otherwise be familiar with the canon.
This is the first time that you’ve written for opera. How did you become involved with the production?
In 2004 I published a book called Living with the Devil, which was a study of the figure of Mara in Buddhist thought and practice. A couple of years later the British composer Julian Marshall contacted me. He had read the book and was interested in collaborating on a musical work based on the material. This led me to begin writing some of the Mara stories in verse. But for various reasons we both moved on to other projects, and the idea fizzled out. Some time later I met the American composer Sherry Woods at Gaia House, a retreat center in England where I work. Sherry had already set some of my translations of Nagarjuna’s Verses from the center to music, and wondered whether I had anything else she might be able to use. So I gave her the Mara material I had started writing for Julian. Over the next few years, in fits and starts, we eventually managed to complete the chamber opera that will be performed this October in Florence, South Carolina, where Sherry and her family live and work. I have never written for opera before, though Philip Glass did set some of my translations of Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life to music for his choral symphony.
What was different and rewarding about the writing process for opera?
I am not a particularly musical person, though I do enjoy going to the opera. I particularly like the combination of text, theatrical performance, and music, which, for some reason, I find deeply moving. It was both a delight and a challenge to transform the traditional texts on Mara—all of which are taken from the Pali canon—into a series of verses, organized into scenes and acts, which tell the story of Mara’s interactions with the Buddha. The opera is made up of two acts: the first tells the story of the Buddha’s temptation by and conquest of Mara, while the second depicts the last months of his life in which he succumbs to illness and finally death. In many ways, I found that by telling this story in words and music, the grandeur of the Buddha’s life is revealed in such a way that it transcends “Buddhism” to present a profoundly human story that can speak to an audience irrespective of religious or spiritual beliefs.
Mara is billed as “going beyond its Buddhist origins to address the concerns of all.” What are some of the lessons we’ll learn about the devil in our lives despite our religious or spiritual background? And what Buddhist lessons will be new to people of other faiths?
The wonderful thing about the texts on Mara is that we find “Buddhist” teachings presented in a mythological rather than a psychological way. This has the effect of fleshing out and humanizing many central Buddhist concepts and doctrines. The figure of Mara, for example, symbolizes death—the very word Mara means something like “the killer.” This makes us reflect on how craving and egoism are in some ways a kind of inner death that prevent us from being fully alive. When the Buddha “conquers” Mara, I take this to mean that he liberates himself from the powers within him that render his life static, lifeless, and dull. Yet as a human being, he is still subject to the inevitability of physical illness, aging, and death. Thus the second and final act of the opera shows how despite his having defeated Mara through his enlightenment, he is still subject to Mara as a personification of his own mortality. Since the opera is able to show such things visually and musically, it has no need to make any overt references to Buddhist teaching or belief. The result, I feel, is that in letting Buddhism fall away, we are able to discover the deep humanity at the heart of the dharma.
Mara: A Chamber Opera on Good and Evil will be presented at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 28 and 29 at the Black Box Theatre of the Francis Marion University Performing Arts Center in Florence, South Carolina. Tickets can be purchased online at fmupac.org or by calling (843) 661-4444.