Peter Skilling recently told me about an opera based upon the story of the Bodhisatta’s life as Prince Temiya (found as Jataka number 538 in the Pali collection and also known as the Mugapakkha Jataka). The opera is called The Silent Prince and can be seen in Bangkok in June. It is the creation of Thai-American composer Somtow and stars an international cast – more information and a clip can be found here and a review of the December preview with some pictures here.
The basic story of the Temiya Jataka is that of a prince, Temiya, who is the Buddha in a past life. He does not wish to become king as he knows that this will necessarily involve violence and thus a bad rebirth. So he pretends to be deaf, dumb and crippled, sitting motionless in silence throughout his childhood, despite people’s best efforts to provoke a movement or sound. The climactic moment comes when his father has finally given up on him and sent him out of the city to be buried. While the charioteer is busy digging a hole, Temiya gets off his chariot, stretches, then picks the chariot up and spins it over his head. (This image of the Bodhisatta holding the chariot over his head is depicted in many temple murals and manuscript illustrations in Thailand and elsewhere.) He then converts the charioteer and renounces to practice meditation in the forest.
The story is certainly dramatic enough for opera – the poor prince is subjected to all sorts of torments as a child, such as being refused food or left to sit in his own excrement, as well as being tempted by dancing girls – and the tension builds as he is taken off to be killed. The main challenge for the composer, as the website explains, is staging an opera in which the main character does not move (and certainly does not sing!) for the vast majority of the story. Somtow increases the drama of this situation by having the prince played by a male soprano singer, namely Jak Cholvijarn (who happens to also be a scholar of Buddhism). Throughout most of the opera Temiya sits in silent meditation, only revealing himself to be the Bodhisatta right at the end in his stunning voice.
Oh if only Bangkok was a little closer to Edinburgh! I would so love to see the production myself.