by Denis Gray
BANGKOK -- You cannot really get upset when Somtow Sucharitkul arrives more than 30 minutes late for an interview. His excuse is hard to beat. Deeply immersed in another world -- of gods, demons and holy men -- Thailand's "Renaissance man" was composing a scene from what is shaping into arguably the largest integrated work in classical music -- ever.
Somtow Sucharitkul in an interview in front of a Vincent van Gogh portrait. (Photo by Dnis Gray)
By 2020 -- "If I am still around," he jokes - Somtow, now 63, will have completed a cycle of 10 operas based on the Jataka tales, stories popular across Asia which depict the previous lives of Gautama Buddha. In duration, at least, the work will have surpassed that Mount Everest of opera, the 19th century Der Ring des Nibelungen by Richard Wagner, which clocks in at around 16 hours for the four operas.
DasJati, as Somtow calls the cycle, has been described by Britain's Opera Now magazine as "the most extended music drama of all time," while the already performed works of the opus have drawn consistently positive reviews. Mahosat, an epic of war and deliverance and the sixth opera of the cycle, will be ready for staging next year.
To risk stereotyping, something Somtow himself confronts from time to time, one might not expect an Asian composer to rise to the forefront of contemporary opera, Western-style. But Somtow has long defied cultural pigeonholing and being restricted to any one creative endeavor, or geography.
Somtow Sucharitkul first gained international recognition as an author of fantasy, science fiction and horror novels, including cult classics "Vampire Junction." (Photo by Dnis Gray)
Born into a royal Thai family, educated at England's Eton College and Cambridge University, he spent much of his life in the U.S. Although steeped in music from an early age -- he composed his first opera as a schoolboy -- Somtow gained international recognition as an author of fantasy, science fiction and horror novels. His more than 50 books have sold over 2 million copies worldwide. Some, like "Vampire Junction," are established cult classics. While living near Hollywood, he even tried his hand at movie directing. "The kills are gruesome and inventive, a fun ride," wrote one critic of his work "The Laughing Dead."
After an earlier stint in his homeland, Somtow returned to Thailand permanently in 2001 and to his first love, throwing himself into a maelstrom of musical composition and performance. Somtow also founded the Siam Philharmonic, which he frequently conducts, an award-winning youth orchestra and the Opera Siam company, establishing Bangkok as the opera hub of Southeast Asia and enhancing the once lackluster classical music scene.
"When I had the vision of creating an opera company I didn't really know we would be starting from absolute scratch -- no funding, no built-in audience, an orchestra that couldn't play this kind of music," he said. "I started a whole movement. I think this will be a greater artistic contribution than any of the music or books I have written," he notes.
Somtow conducts the Siam Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. (Courtesy of Puriwat Charoenying).
Somtow's compositions -- symphonies, ballets, operas and two requiems, including one in memory of the World Trade Center attack victims -- have been described as a synthesis of Western neo-Romantic and neo-Asian idioms. A Somtow piece, for example, may include a harpsichord and a renad, or traditional Thai xylophone. His opera stagings often transpose original settings to Asia: the Egypt of Verdi's Aida becomes the ancient Thai kingdom of Ayuthaya, a tuk-tukfeatures in Mozart's The Magic Flute and Wagner's killer dragon Fafner appears in the shape of a giant crane during Bangkok's building boom.
But some of his musical horizons have nothing to do with Asia. For example, Somtow believes he has a "strange connection" with the Holocaust which he cannot explain, and for three years has been struggling to finish a "very dark" opera about a Jewish woman who carried on a passionate affair with a Nazi guard at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
"I refuse to commit myself to an ethnic identity of any kind, which necessarily narrows me as a person and makes me less human," he said.
Before Somtow's arrived on the scene, Bangkok was already beginning to absorb Western classical music. The Bangkok Symphony Orchestra was born in 1982, and five years later the 2,000-seat, Japanese-funded Thailand Cultural Center opened its doors. World class artists started to include Bangkok on their tours.
With his high-profile projects, Somtow unquestionably set the Thai capital on a new musical trajectory. He is often asked by Thai journalists why he "does all this foreign stuff."
A scene from Somtow’s staging of the popular opera Carmen. (Courtesy of Puriwat Charoenying)
"My answer is: 'Are you saying we should give up TV and the movies? These are all foreign art forms. And that we should only have likay (traditional Thai folktheater)?'" Somtow told the Nikkei Asian Review. "This classical music is like a huge inheritance that we have received. We are not re-creating Europe in Asia. We may be beginning with this raw material which we have inherited, but we are putting our own stamp on. We are creating our own thing with it."
While other Asian capitals may enjoy greater funding for the arts, Somtow says they have tended to continue a post-colonial trend in emulating second-rate European opera houses whereas Bangkok generated a "wild and adventurous vision."
The fifth opera of Somtow’s cycle, Nemiraj, is a work of epic proportions, musically and story-wise. (Courtesy of Puriwat Charoenying)
Somtow's Jataka cycle awaits critical appraisal -- a festival of all 10 operas is planned for 2020 -- but it is without doubt highly adventurous. Some of its operas are intimate -- the first, The Silent Prince, scored for only 20 instruments. Others are massive in scale, spanning eons and involving hundreds of characters. The fifth, Nemiraj, boasts another operatic first: an ensemble with individual vocal lines for 33 soloists, representing 33 deities, described as a "harmonic tsunami" using only three chords stretched out over eight minutes.
Writing The Silent Prince on a commission for Opera Vista, in Houston, Texas, Somtow says it was only while in the middle of working on a third opera based on the Jataka tales -- a Harry Potter-like story of magic and wizardry -- that he conceived of an entire cycle. "When this happened I thought, 'Nah, this is ridiculous. We already have the Ring,'" he said. "But it was an idea which just wouldn't let go. The seeds of the whole cycle are all planted. I suppose I am now essentially watering them."
Somtow recently took his company to Bayreuth, the German town sacred to Wagnerians. During the celebrated annual festival of Wagner's works there, he did a "very cheeky" thing. On an off-night, Somtow invited festival attendees to a staging of The Silent Prince in a small auditorium.
The reception, by audience and critics, proved extremely favorable, and was even better in the Czech Republic, where some critics expressed amazement that this was "a real opera, not just an ethnographic display."
"When Asian performing artists go to Europe they are treated rather like performing monkeys: 'Oh, how sweet that you guys can play our music,'" Somtow said. "I think what was really gratifying was being treated as a peer ensemble."