Thursday, November 28, 2013

An Interview with Opera Siam Director Somtow Sucharitkul

I got to keep in touch with Opera Siam's maverick artistic director Somtow Sucharitkul, and discuss his upcoming production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman. The production will star Jessica Chen and new Wagnerian Kyu Won-Han in the two lead roles.

To attract out-of-towners to Bangkok (as if we need any special reasons to visit), the team has also came up a special land tour package that includes hotel and gala reception. Here's more info:

Land Tour Package for The Flying Dutchman
Luxury Package
Hotel: Kempinski
2 premium tickets to the gala of THE FLYING DUTCHMAN (value 10,000 baht)
a glass of wine in the intermission
invitation to reception
2 nights of luxury hotel for a couple with breakfast (approx value 20,000 baht)
transportation to the performance
Total value of package approximately 40,000 baht
OUR PRICE: 22,000 baht
Comfort Package
Hotel: Rembrandt
All the same perks as luxury package except hotel:
Value of package - approximately 30,000 baht
OUR PRICE: 18,000 baht
Budget Package
Hotel Ibis
2 nights for 2 persons at budget hotel
other perks the same as other packages
Value of package - approximately 25,000 baht
OUR PRICE 15,500 baht

for further info, write to

The Mad Scene: For those who have not been keeping track of Opera Siam's progress, explain to us what it does, and list for us the subsidiary orchestras/ensembles under it.

Somtow: Opera Siam was created in 2001 as “Bangkok Opera Foundation” by myself, Somtow Sucharitkul, originally as a one-shot production company to produce Madana, an opera commissioned as part of the campaign to fund the restoration of a classic royal palace. The production was so well attended that I decided to try to create a genuine repertory company for opera in the region. Because the opera company was created more or less from scratch, in the end many other ensembles were created to support it including the Siam Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orpheus Choir, a young soloists program, and most recently the Siam Sinfonietta, an award-winning youth orchestra. The idea of this company was to be a real opera company, not a company that simply occasionally produced operas from the top 20. From the start, therefore, is trying to focus on the totality of the range of the operatic repertoire. Because of this, it's done productions like Bluebeard's Castle by Bartok, operas by Wagner, one of the first performances in Asia of Massenet’s Thaïs, and new works. And of course, Buttefrly and Tosca as well.

The Mad Scene: Opera Siam has a long-standing relationship with Jessica Chen, who seems to be your dramatic soprano du jour. How did you first come to cast her in your earlier productions?

Somtow: In fact Jessica was cast in Turandot after I saw her ;perform the role in Malaysia. In our conversations it became clear that she was very comfortable with the German repertoire, however, so I cast her as Brünnhilde in Walküre — she was stunning.

The Mad Scene: I heard that the company was supposed to do Siegfried as part of your on-going Ring Cycle, why change it to Flying Dutchman?

Somtow: Our original Siegfried, engaged in 2007, had many serious bouts with illness. The Ring Cycle itself had numerous ups and downs over financing and by the time we had a cast settled for Siegried six years had gone by. Then, some of the singers panicked a bit and hit scheduling conflicts that we had not imagined. I looked at the list of the known roles from the singers who remained under contract for Siegfried - and found they had all done Dutchman. Violà! We were able to do a major contribution to Wagner in the region during the Wagner year (I’m not sure if this is the ASEAN premiere, but it could well be) — and still keep most of the cast. And then it provided an opening for me to cast the brilliant Kyu Won Han in his first Wagner role — a chance to use a charismatic, “sexy” young singer in what I hope will be quite a fresh approach to the work.

The Mad Scene: Opera Siam has garnered a reputation for its daring approach in staging works that require large forces and less mainstream appeal. What is the motivation behind such a risky approach to programming?

Somtow: “Risky” - hmm - who said it was risky? Doing opera at all is already so risky here in Thailand that I don’t think there is a significant difference between, say, La Traviata and Wozzeck. (I haven’t done either of those yet.) The point is that once you get past Butterfly, we are at a tabula rasa. It is incredibly exciting because it means that no matter what opera you produce, most people in this country will be experiencing it for the first time. Certainly very exciting things come into play that are no longer true in Europe - for example, people actually want to know what happens in the plot. In my opinion, opera isn’t about second-guessing what mainstream appeal may or may not be. The job of a full-service opera company must be to reproduce the totality of the operatic experience. In my entire career as a novelist, composer, and so on, I have learned that every time one attempts to follow “mainstream appeal” one inevitably misses the boat. If you have a genuine vision that speaks to people and truly opens up new vistas of the imagination for the audience, then the mainstream appeal will come. The most popular operas in terms of ticket sales we ever produced here were Butterfly (no surprise) and Rheingold (surprise!) The moral of this is that you must never never never assume that the audience is too stupid to be challenged. My opera The Silent Prince was the first to play to a completely full house here in Thailand (as it did in its Houston premiere) — so we must not think that people won’t come to a contemporary opera on a serious theme.

Somtow receives the International Wagner Society Award

The Mad Scene: As both an impresario and artist running your own company among many endeavours, how hands on are you in running the company on a day-to-day basis? What percentage of your time is spent managing the business side VS the artistic side?

Somtow: I am driven to my deathbed on an almost daily basis on this.

The Mad Scene: For those who are not familiar with The Flying Dutchman, what is so special about this opera? What are its highlights?

Somtow: Well, The Flying Dutchman pretty much created how we today imagine the sea sounds like. There is no sea movie soundtrack, no “sea symphony”, no opera set at sea that doesn’t owe something to the opening notes of this opera. The Flying Dutchman himself is an icon — many people have bought tickets for this opera simply because they’ve heard of the character from the Pirates of the Caribbean movie. So wait a minute. You are familiar with this opera, you just don’t know it.

What is special about The Flying Dutchman? Well, it is the first opera to deploy the leitmotiv system which Wagner created in which every character and concept is identified by its own “signature tune.” This technique was a new way to give cohesion to large scale works and it really paved the way for composers to think of operas as single, unified works rather than a collection of mosaic stone like pieces. Without this system of composition, film music would not be possible, nor the operas of such un-Wagnerian composers as Puccini.

But I would say it is the most approachable Wagner opera. Its melodic lines still have the fragrance of bel canto (this was the period when Wagner wrote an aria to be interpolated into Bellini’s Norma) and its story is of engaging simplicity and believability.

The Mad Scene: Lastly, what highlights can audiences expect from this upcoming Siam Opera production?

Somtow: Well ... I think people will find this production quite moving and quite startling. We’re using some absolutely top singers: our Daland and our Erik are fresh from Bayreuth, our Steuermann is a San Francisco Opera regular, and we have a really sexy Dutchman in Kyu Won-Han, making his Wagnerian debut. Stacey Stofferahn as Senta is also stunning and Ema Barazia, returning after mezzo roles in Otello and Mahler 8, has become a local favorite. Don’t expect a languid, turgid interpretation of the work; I feel that Wagner’s vocal writing of this period is closer to Bellini than what you’d think of as “heavy stuff”. Nor should you expect meaningless Euro-trash in the mise-en-scène; we believe that stuff is pretty much passé. But this is a production with an Asian perspective. Making the fishing village a kelong brings the story home to us and makes us understand why Daland would give away his daughter for a box of gold. In fact, the psychology of the characters probably makes more sense in this milieu than an artificial Western setting would.

Check out Opera Siam's Facebook Page for more information on the Flying Dutchman production.

More information about Somtow Sucharitkul on his Wikipedia page.


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  3. Because of some scheduling conflicts, our friend Jessica Chen has regrettably had to be substituted with the remarkable singer Stacey Stofferahn from the United States. However we're delighted to say that, wild politics aside, the opera is definitely on and ticket sales going quite well — as well indeed as operas like "Tosca" in the past. Partly perhaps because many people here think that an opera called "The Flying Dutchman" must be about Johnny Depp!

    We would love to invite our SIngaporean friends. As far as I know, Nancy Yuen is flying in to be in the audience. Others, too, I hope.


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