Tavener’s Hindu opera Krishna to be given world premiere in 2024
Grange Park Opera have announced an exciting project to bring Krishna, the unrealised opera by John Tavener to the stage in 2024, directed by Sir David Pountney.
Krishna at a glance
In fifteen vignettes, a Celestial Narrator delivers the cycle of Krishna’s life: he is born when the earth is crying for help; he is assumed into Paradise until the earth needs him again. The text, by Tavener, expounds a Blakean philosophy, namely that in any part of the universe is the whole universe. Tavener explained ‘The Narrator describes each scene in the simplest possible way. He moves freely in the audience, explaining the double meaning, charming, frightening and consoling us. The music is intensely vivid and highly dramatic’. The opera is palindromic in structure with a ravishing central love duet between Krishna as a young man (tenor) and Radha (soprano) at its emotional heart.
There are challenging aspects to the work’s staging: Krishna is given a ‘halo’ of eight flutes (four of them alto flutes) which are to be “aerially positioned”.
[or Krsnalīla or The Play of Krishna]
A mystical pantomime in fifteen scenes
Libretto by John Tavener (in English and Sanskrit)
Duration: 95 mins
as a child, treble or young soprano
as an adolescent, countertenor
as a young man, tenor
as a man, baritone
as a child, young soprano
as a woman, soprano
YASHADA, the weeping cow, mezzo-soprano
CELESTIAL NARRATOR, baritone
SATB Chorus (with additional children’s chorus is possible)
The History of the Opera
In 2003, Sir John Tavener and Head of Promotion Gill Graham met with a festival director, enthusiastic to commission an opera from the composer. John had been thinking about an opera about Krishna for some time, and despite circumstances eventually preventing the festival from proceeding with the commission, he was so inspired that he wrote passionately and without delay, completing the opera in 2005.
Even generally John wrote feverishly, composing over 300 works – particularly in the early 2000s an especially productive period of big choral-orchestral works including Lament for Jerusalem (2002), The Beautiful Names (2004), and Miroir des Poèmes (2006), Sollemnitas in Conceptione Immaculata Beatae Mariae Virginis (2006) – all not long written after the completion of his epic 8-hour choral vigil The Veil of the Temple in 2002. As John wrote these amazing works with ease, the manuscript for Krishna was left aside for a moment.
In 2012 the central Love Duet was extracted and adapted for performance at the Manchester International Festival in 2013, reigniting hopes that interest in the full opera would be rekindled. With John’s sad passing that November the opera was left un-commissioned and unrealised. Writing for the The Essential John Tavener Guide, a publication intended to celebrate Tavener’s 70th birthday, Elizabeth Seymour dedicated the final page to the opera. Then entitled The Play of Krishna and still considered ‘in progress’, she notes that the opera ‘Krishna marks a return for Tavener, following his extreme ill-health, to music that is universal in scope and ecstatic in mood’. (Seymour’s full note is included below.)
John and his wife Lady Maryanna Tavener’s enjoyed a long-term friendship with HRH The Prince of Wales, himself a patron of Welsh National Opera and supporter of John’s music. Tavener’s Fall and Resurrection (1997) was dedicated to The Prince and the now internationally famous Song for Athene (1993) was sung at Princess Diana’s funeral in the same year. In 2019, through Lady Tavener’s friendship with Prince, the opera was brought to the attention of David Pountney, then director of Welsh National Opera. Pountney would step down from his position in Cardiff later that year but he immediately introduced the idea to Wasfi Kani, Director of Grange Park Opera.
Kani and the board of Grange Park took the decision to stage Krishna in 2024 in February 2020, announcing on April 8.
Background to the Opera
by Elizabeth Seymour
As a child of 12 attending the Glyndebourne Festival, John Tavener was struck by the brilliance of Mozart's The Magic Flute, with its exquisite and playful musical depictions of archetypal characters. An even younger Tavener had a fondness for staging impromptu solo concerts for his grandfather, in which he would recreate elemental sounds such as thunder and crashing waves, and it is possible to see in both of these early fascinations the infant form of Tavener’s later and more explicit emphasis on writing music as a means by which to express something much bigger, more constant and enduring than the self. Tavener, as with Mozart and his archetypes, sought to communicate universal truths that transcend our narrower individual experiences and thus are recognisable to all.
While The Magic Flute never fell from favour with Tavener, it took him several decades of navigation through compositional fashions and his own metaphysical evolution to arrive back to a position in which it is a direct influence. Krishna marked a return for Tavener, following his extreme ill health, to music that is universal in scope and ecstatic in mood. Its composition and characterisations draw much from the character of Mozart’s Singspiel, presenting as it does episodes from the life of Krishna in what Tavener described as a ‘mystical pantomime’ employing mime, dance, song and acting. One of the many incarnations of Vishnu, the Supreme Being as worshipped in the Vaishnavist form of Hinduism, Krishna is most often depicted either as an infant or small child; or as a noble young man renowned as a hero or lover. He embodies Līla, the playful, blissful side of Vishnu and in whatever guise, there is about him a prevailing air of mischief mingled with enlightened composure, a kind of ideal spiritual guide.
Each of the fifteen vignettes from Krishna’s life as illustrated in Sanskrit in Krishna operates equally on a literal and an esoteric level, so that the action represents not only what the audience sees and hears, but what this implies metaphysically. To illuminate this dual significance for the audience, Tavener created the role of the ‘Celestial Narrator’, effectively a master of ceremonies who describes the onstage action to the audience very simply in English, moving among them and teasing out their responses by being himself alternately beguiling and frightening, benevolent and malevolent. The Celestial Narrator is played by a mercurial and charismatic baritone throughout, while the character of Krishna progresses from a treble to a baritone as he ages.
The play opens with the weeping earth deity Bhūmi, who has assumed the form of a cow in order to beg the Supreme Being to aid the overburdened earth. She stands before the Ocean of Milk, one of the seven oceans of various liquids described in Hindu cosmology and the domain of Vishnu and his consort Lakshmi. Krishna is then incarnated by a kind of meditative transmission to a woman’s womb; we see his ecstatic birth and attempted murder by the demoness Putana; his mother’s discovery of the heavens and universe inside his mouth; his first meeting with Radha, an earthly incarnation of Lakshmi and one of the 108 Gopi, or cow-herd girls; his trickery of the Gopi to reveal themselves to him; the dance of the Gopi in which he appears to each of them; and his departure from them. We then arrive at the love duet, the half-way point of the play and its climactic scene: the Supreme Being makes loves to Radha, adoring her in his earthly incarnation as Krishna. Tavener described the music for their choreographed union as ‘the most ecstatic I have ever written.’ Each time Krishna sings, the sacred mantra ‘Om namō narāyanāya’ is chanted, connecting the incarnation to his cosmic counterpart.
The subsequent scenes guide us through Krishna’s defeat of evil; his abduction of Rukhmini as his principal wife; the meeting of Radha and Rukhmini and the elision of their souls and bodies through love of Krishna; and his withdrawal from the world and return to paradise. The Epilogue presents a scene suggestive of our current age, which is by many Hindus believed to be the Kali Yuga, characterised by imbalance and aggression and the last in a cycle of four phases of decreasing enlightenment. There are echoes of Bhūmi’s weeping, as Krishna sings from paradise that when evil prevails and truth declines, he will return to the world.
A note of thanks
Krishna meant so much to John and was a work he longed to hear in his lifetime. Thank you Maryanna, Wasfi, David and Grange Park Opera for committing to bring his vision to the stage in what would have been John’s 80th anniversary season. We wish you all every success in mustering the resources to unleash Krishna on the world.
Grange Park Opera has a fundraising campaign in place to mount the opera. Please contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org should you wish to support the production.
Grange Park Opera: World Premiere Krishna
John Tavener on wisemusicclassical.com
The Essential John Tavener: A Guide Online