Opera Siam pushes artistic boundaries with a series of ambitious performances
Back in January, at the Thailand Cultural Center’s Main Hall, the tireless Opera Siam managed to produce two operas within the span of a single week; a monumental world premiere of a Buddhist-themed epic, and an intimate monodrama about the Holocaust.
The former, entitled Chariot of Heaven, is the 5th installment in Somtow Sucharitkul’s DasJati: Ten Lives of the Buddha marathon (for which he is the writer, composer, and director), and was premiered to mark the 100th day since the passing of His Majesty King Rama IX. As such, it could not have been a more appropriate subject as it deals with the story of a King so pure in his pursuit of the Dharma that the gods themselves summon him to heaven to preach to them.
The four performances of Chariot of Heaven—the 4th in the 10-part series—were very well attended, with audiences that ranged from ambassadors and high society types, to tourists, students, and young people (affluent and working class). It truly was an astonishing phenomenon, made possible by the confluence of Buddhism and opera—an exotic treat for the tourists and a new educational approach to Thai tradition and philosophies.
“Some of the operas are going on tour this year,” revealed Somtow. “The first one, The Silent Prince, recently premiered in Germany and Czech Republic. Number three, Sama: The Faithful Son is being revived at the Thailand Cultural Center in the first week of August, and then will (hopefully) go on tour in India. Number five, Architect of Dreams, will premiere in Thailand in October.
“I’m composing this sequence of 10 full length operas of which five have been produced so far. Each one can be performed as an individual work, but when finally strung together it will actually be the biggest such work in the history of classical music. The idea is that all ten will eventually be done in a weeklong cycle and that this will become a regular Ten Lives of the Buddha festival, akin to the Bayreuth Festival where Wagner’s four-part Ring Cycle is performed.”
Of the five DasJati operas produced so far, Chariot of Heaven has the least sheer plot elements. Its theme is the strength of adithan, a firmness of purpose that can see through to an ultimate end generations away. A total of 84,000 generations pass in the first ten minutes of the opera, which also takes us to the depths of hell and to the height of the Tavatimsa heaven. In this opera’s 90-minute run time, I felt I’d experienced as much as a four-hour Wagner opera.
Making up for the relative thinness of plot, Somtow has poured a lifetime of experience and technical brilliance into this work. Moments of orchestral felicities abound, and there’s an unusual use of instruments—from the emphasis on the piccolo trumpet, to exotic Asian sounds like the pi java and tanpura, and even the sci-fi twang of a Theremin.
Then there are the musical “firsts”. Somtow depicts the 33 Gods of Tavatimsa with 33 simultaneous soloists—creating a size of operatic ensemble without precedent in the entire history of opera—while building his climax on only three chords.
Another operatic first is the ‘March of Time’ sequence in the first act, in which Somtow portrays, through music, the entire history of mankind—from the Stone Age to a futuristic post-holocaust world and back again. The portrayals of heaven and hell both stretch the classical music envelope tremendously.
Conductor Trisdee na Patalung kept the huge operation together (sometimes as many as two hundred people were involved in the pit and on stage), cementing his reputation as the most accomplished Thai conductor of his generation.
Mention should also be made of the astonishing coloratura performance of Chinese soprano Sen Guo, filling in at the last minute for Stacey Tappan who was unable to make it owing to a scheduling conflict. Guo’s deliciously floated high E in the first act alone was worth the price of admission (a moment of impossible beauty). Meanwhile, Puntwitt Asawa, as the charioteer, showed a rare “heroic” side to the countertenor voice and is destined to become one of Thailand’s international opera stars. Opera Siam regulars Damian Whiteley (the King of Heaven), Jak Cholvijarn, and Barbara Zion, all filled their roles with élan, and the chorus was amazing—perhaps the best opera chorus yet heard in this town.
Special mention should be made of soprano Kaleigh Rae Gamaché, who though she only had a small role in Chariot of Heaven, appeared three days later at a completely packed Bangkok Art and Culture Center in the title role in the one-woman show The Diary of Anne Frank. This performance, a revival of the successful Somtow-directed production from last year, was brought back to mark Holocaust Memorial Day (January 27th). With an ensemble of only nine instrumentalists, Grigori Frid’s forces were directed with laser precision by Trisdee, demonstrating in a single week his command of vastly different musical idioms.
Where Chariot was open and lush and colorful, Anne Frank was claustrophobic and dark. Two more different productions could not have appeared side by side. Yet they both, in their different ways, were triumphs for both conductor and director.
Although Opera Siam’s productions have an international veneer and use many imported soloists, these twin programs have shown the remarkable versatility and vitality of opera in Thailand. European and American critics have been raving for a while now, and this reviewer feels that it’s time for the local crowd to notice the treasure it has in its grasp.
NOTE: You can become a subscriber to the entire series, and a membership will get you VIP seats. Donations—from music lovers, corporations, the Buddhist community, and so on—are also readily accepted to keep the project going (and a recently enacted 200 percent tax break for people who contribute to arts and culture projects should help). In addition, some of the productions use large numbers of cast members. These operas have international-standard primary casts, local singers and actors can find out how to participate by visiting www.dasjati.com.
Words by Stan Gayuski | Photos courtesy of the Bangkok Opera Foundation