Opera Siam's Stars Invade Singapore

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Five performances of Singapore Lyric Opera’s “Aïda”, perhaps the most lavish production in the flagship company’s 27-year history, will be conducted by Thailand’s maestro Somtow Sucharitkul from June 1-6.  Considering that Somtow is an operatic pioneer in the region, whose operas have been seen in the United States and Europe, one might ask why it’s taken so long for him to helm the opera in Singapore, but this epic production has more of Thailand’s influence than its maestro.

Nancy Yuen, Somtow, and Tomas Ruud on Singapore's morning news

Nancy Yuen, Somtow, and Tomas Ruud on Singapore's morning news

Performing the role of “Radames” is Spanish tenor Israel Lozano, whose Southeast Asian debut was in “Madama Butterfly” with Opera Siam nine years ago.  Since then, he has become a fixture in Singapore and Malaysia as well as Thailand.  The venegful Egyptian Princess, Amneris, is played by Mexican mezzo Grace Echauri — whose Southeast Asian debut was fourteen years ago with Opera Siam — as Amneris.  Nancy Yuen, artistic director of Singapore Lyric Opera and the region’s reigning diva, plays Aida, and she has done over a dozen roles with Opera Siam, including the title role in Mae Naak, Butterfly, Mimi in Bohème, Thaïs, Donna Anna, Pamina, and the Empress in Somtow’s Dan no Ura, as well as directing one of Opera Siam’s productions.

“There’s a sense in which it feels like an Opera Siam production,” says the maestro, “except there’s a real budget, and real preparation time.”   Singapore’s Aida is budgeted at five times the cost of the average opera in Bangkok.  Somtow opined that there were numerous differences in working in the two metropolises.  “There’s a serious work ethic in Singapore,” he says, “meaning that there’s a really heavy rehearsal schedule.  And it gives the opportunity for the stage director, Covent Garden’s Andrew Sinclair, to delve really deeply into the characters and to come up with a quietly revolutionary interpretation of the opera.”

When Somtow produced “Aida” in Bangkok in 2005, the production was a revelation.  Richard Harrell, the guest stage director from San Francisco Opera, said “It is still one of the productions I am most proud of.”  Instead of being set in Egypt, the production was given the look and feel of ancient Siam at war with Burma, the milieu of Suriyothai and Naresuan, giving an interesting series of local metaphors for its audience.

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In terms of look and feel Singapore’s “Aida” is more traditional in that it is set in Egypt.  But in other ways it too is revolutionary.  “After a five minute conversation with Andrew Sinclair, we discovered, amazingly, that we were on the same page,” Somtow said.  “We were both fatigued with the epic, monumental ‘Aidas’ we see frequently, and we could see another ‘Aida’ inside the spectacle — an intimate family tragedy of people caught up in a sweeping history they can’t control.”

Testing the costume: Alvin Tan as Ramfis

Testing the costume: Alvin Tan as Ramfis

Somtow’s take on the music digs deep under the crust of “epic splendor” to try to pull out Verdi’s “intimate drama.”  He’s been working with Singapore Lyric Opera’s orchestra to bring out the music’s exotic, subtle colors.  He’s removed dozens of “traditional” exaggerations that singers have overlaid onto Verdi’s score, and eschewed the monumentally slow tempi of some interpreters for a much more exciting pace.  “I hope that local audiences will be sucked into the story in all the richness and complexity that Andrew Sinclair has found in the text,” he says.

Will the production eventually come to Bangkok?  “I’m trying to talk them into it,” the Thai maestro says cryptically.

an intense moment in rehearsal....

an intense moment in rehearsal....


Singapore Lyric Opera’s AIDA plays June 1,2,3,5 and 6 at the Esplanade in Singapore. Opera fans from Thailand, Malaysia, and even Norway are flying in for the show.  For tickets, go to sistic.com.sg.

Somtow honored with European Cultural Achievement Award

Thai composer, conductor and novelist Somtow Sucharitkul has won the 2017 European Award for Cultural Achievement.



The Award is from the Kultur-Forum Europa, founded in 1992 on the initiative of Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the German statesman who shepherded Germany’s foreign ministry through the years of reunification, promotes European thought in all areas of culture.

The KFE cited Somtow for his services to the spirit of international diversity, as a cultural ambassador between East and West, overcoming national borders and cultural-historical barriers, and establishing meaningful cultural connections between Thailand and Europe.

The President of the KFE will travel to Thailand and present the award to Somtow in person on December 18th, the UN International Migrants Day, at a concert in the Thailand Cultural Center in which Somtow will conduct Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

“Well deserved!” tweeted Germany’s Ambassador, Dr. Peter Prügel.  Thailand’s Tourism Minister, Kobkarn Wattanavrangul, called Somtow “the pride of Thailand” in a LINE message.

“I’m thrilled and humbled by this award,” said Somtow, noting that the only composer ever to win the award in the past is Hans Werner Henze, one of Germany’s most celebrated twentieth century musicians.  Other laureates have included actor Georges du Fresne, American writer Dough Wright, Dmitris Tsatsos, Mayor of Athens, and Elzbietta Penderecka, creator of the Krakow Beethoven Festival.   Winners have included theater directors, politicians, and choreographers.  The first person to win theaward was Annemarie Renger, the first woman to serve as president of a German Parliament and the first woman to be nominated for President by a major party in Germany.

Since 2005, the KFE also awards a European Tolerance Prize, which in 2009 went to German physician Dr. Dirk Weeber-Arayatumsopon, for his work in Thailand with disabled children and in preventing HIV.

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He credits the widespread attention in the international media for his DasJati project, a series of ten linked music dramas based on the iconic last ten lives of the Buddha, which when completed will constitute the “largest classical work of all time” in the words of London’s Opera Now.  Part of the work toured in Europe last year, and was an eye-opener for European audiences, positioning Thailand in the cultural limelight.

Somtow is the first Thai and the first East Asian to receive the European Award for Cultural Achievement.

“It’s important to me that the KFE’s website’s headline is ‘2017 Award to Thailand.’” Somtow added.  “Exciting things are happening here artistically.  I firmly believe that we are heading toward a realignment of the world’s cultural map and that Thailand is going to be a regional center of such a map.  This is why, after a half-century of a career in the west, I came back to Thailand.  This is where it is truly happening now.   I am gratified to be a small part of this revolution.  I am proud to accept the award on behalf of all the artists and the people of this country.”

Bangkok Post's review of Suwana Sama

by Michael Proudfoot

Celebrating His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej's birthday, Somtow Sucharitkul's latest opera Suwana Sama, The Faithful Son received its world premiere at the magnificent Suryadhep Music Sala of Rangsit University on Dec 5, with three subsequent performances on Sunday afternoon and evening and Monday evening. With international and Thai star performers, the opera proved both thoroughly enjoyable and deeply moving, with a stunning and magical ending.

The opera is the latest in Somtow's ambitious project to write 10 operas portraying the Ten Lives of the Buddha. The eventual intention is to perform all 10 operas in the space of a week, in a musical extravaganza to rival Wagner's Ring Cycle performances in Bayreuth. Indeed "operas" may not quite be the right word, for Somtow has pioneered a form that he calls "ballet-opera", where the ballet is integral to the whole structure and drama of the piece, and not -- as in French and Italian 19th century operas -- just an interlude in what is otherwise a traditional opera. Suwana Sama is the fourth of the operas to be completed. Like the second and third pieces of the cycle to be performed, Mahajanaka in 2014 and Bhuridatta earlier this year, it is also of this ballet-opera format.

The Suryadhep Music Sala is a highly impressive addition to Bangkok's arts and music venues, and ideal for Somtow's productions. It is an 1,100 seat auditorium, which nevertheless seems more intimate than many others of a similar size, with a huge stage, both wide and deep, and wonderful acoustics. It is the special project of Dr Arthit Ourairat, president of Rangsit University, who is to be congratulated in bringing to realisation a venue which will be the envy of any university in the world.

The opera's style is familiar from the preceding operas in the cycle: a compelling mixture of traditional Thai music (including extensive use of percussion), with an accessible Western lyricism, at the same time distinctively Somtow's own, but with easily discernible post-Wagnerian influences, including Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten, Hollywood film music, and more atonal composers such as Alban Berg. The opera is scored for a comparatively small group of musicians, divided into two simultaneous chamber orchestras, one on either side of the conductor. This exposes the individual players who are therefore almost all playing as soloists, but the youthful Siam Philharmonic were up to the task and played with considerable virtuosity. Somtow is fortunate to have such an outstanding interpreter of his works as the conductor Trisdee Na Patalung, who once again led the orchestra and singers with virtuosity.

Somtow conjures another breathtaking ending. Sama is fatally wounded by an evil king, hunting for trophies. The dying Sama does not reprove the king, but asks him to summon his blind parents. As the king realises the full horror of his action, a statue, which has been onstage throughout the entire opera, suddenly comes to life, and reveals herself as Bahusodari, the messenger of the King of Heaven. In an amazing single aria, hauntingly accompanied by solo violin, she tells the king he has killed the Bodhisattva. As the king goes to bring Sama's parents to his dead body, the animals of the forest (the ballet dancers) mourn Sama's death, to the doleful strains of the khlui, the Thai flute, brilliantly played by Somnuek Saeng-Arun. As his devoted and deeply religious parents grieve over Sama's dead body, he comes back to life, cures his parents' blindness, forgives the king, and enjoins the villagers and animals to "be faithful to your parents and you shall find happiness", and the chorus reflects that "happiness has returned to the world through the devotion of a faithful son". It is a sublime ending, leaving many in the audience with tears in their eyes. Perhaps the most amazing performance was by the American soprano Cassandra Black. For Suwana Sama, Black, as the statue, must sit completely immobile on stage for 70 minutes, before coming to life to sing her one and only aria -- a sensational showpiece, dazzlingly sung.

In contrast, Zurich Opera's bass, Damian Whiteley, doubles the contrasting roles of the King of Heaven and the evil Piliyakkha, King of Kashi. Whiteley was in commanding form in both roles, dominating the stage with his powerful presence and resonant bass voice. Another who made a great impression was Kaleigh Rae Gamaché. She, too, doubled roles as an Apsara in heaven and as the Queen of Kashi, singing with a pure, controlled line: a very musical and attractive performance.

Thailand's leading countertenor Jak Cholvijarn reprises his role as the Bodhisattva, in the title role of Sama, the very model of the "golden boy". With his gentle manner and pure voice he was the incarnation of the faithful son.

In the remaining principal roles there was impressively strong support from the young Thai singers Puntwitt Aswadejmetakul, a very promising counter tenor, and Ashiraya Supaluknaree, as Sama's devout parents, and from Siam Opera regulars JC Manar Kaewtae, Areeya Rotjanadit, Yotsawan Meethongkum and Chaiporn Phuangmalee, all in multiple roles. A notable feature of the production was the excellent work of the chorus, who sang and acted with conviction.

The virtuoso ballet troupe, whose imaginative dance is so crucial to the plot, were choreographed by Puwarate Wongatichat. Another regular was the lighting designer, Ryan Attig, whose imaginative work transforms the stage in the rapidly changing scenes, first village, then magic forest, then King of Kashi's Court. The set is by San Francisco designer Dean Shibuya, and the brilliant and colourful costume designs are by Natthawan Santiphap, with material specially created by Pasaya, Thailand's leading fabric company.

If Somtow's dream of a Bangkok Bayreuth is to become a reality, it is vital that others in positions of influence and power in Thailand acknowledge its artistic and cultural importance, and that careful thought and support is given to bringing about its achievement.

Rave review of Wagner Concert!


 originally written for the Bangkok Post

 By Jai Pee


The Siam Sinfonietta Youth Orchestra, the magnificent new Suriyadhep Hall at Rangsit University and the evocative music of Wagner seem to have been made for one another – brought together in glorious fashion on Saturday November 7th under the baton of the ever illustrious and inventive Maestro Somtow Suchaitkul! What a great triumph the evening turned out to be – a new performing version of highlights from Wagner’s great masterpiece The Ring of the Nibelungen, arranged by the Maestro himself. The Ring itself is composed of a three-hour long prologue followed by 3 long operas, or music dramas, as Wagner preferred to call them – the total playing time being in the region of 15 to 16 hours.

To give a concert performance of the main highlights is quite some task – and Somtow had carefully selected the sections he wished his orchestra to perform but in a manner where other conductors and arrangers had often failed – stringing together various orchestral excerpts has not been very successful in the past. The great success of the Somtow version was that he himself narrated the complex story of The Ring from beginning to end, interspersing the dialogue with the carefully chosen and appropriate orchestral passages. It worked wonderfully well. Not only was the dialogue accurate and entertaining it was presented by Somtow in a witty and at times endearing manner. But it was the orchestra that then excelled in the seven chosen passages each lasting around 10 minutes apart from the longer final section. Highlights included the famous Ride of the Valkyries, The Siegfried Idyll, the dramatic Funeral Music following the hero Siegfried’s death and theImmolation Scene from Götterdämmerung. The young orchestra – 40% of them newly arrived following auditions last month – blended together exceptionally well having prepared for the performance by rehearsing over a four-day period in Pattaya where they were given additional coaching from three visiting expert musicians resident in Bayreuth, Germany, the universal Wagner centre.  The expertise of these musicians coupled with the professionalism of conductor and arranger Somtow led to some uplifting and beautiful playing. Often the sounds of the orchestras in large opera houses worldwide can become muffled as the players are sitting and performing in an orchestral ‘pit’ half hidden by the stage overhang. But on a marvelously wide stage like the one in Rangsit University the full sound and colour of the orchestra could be heard in all its glory. And it was a glorious sound, these young and brilliant musicians seeming to enjoy every moment of the score in front of them and capturing with significant eloquence the delicate balance between the highly dramatic, often loud passages and the lyrical quieter sections. Nowhere was this more evident than in the celebrated passage from SiegfriedSiegfried’s Rhine Journey. In over 50 years of opera going I have never heard it performed so sensationally – the orchestral tones and colour were astonishing with a magnificent harmonic relationship between woodwind and brass, the strings and percussion adding vibrant and impressive accompaniment throughout. The sounds were crystal clear and delicately played at times or powerfully rendered at others. It was a performance of unique beauty and on closing one’s eyes, the Rhine appeared before the listener with its craggy outcrops, its slowly rising mists, wooded shoreline and the full sounds of all that is Nature. This is not to say that the rest of the orchestral parts were any less powerful – all were performed wonderfully, enhanced by two dramatically and powerfully sung passages by the one Valkyrie, Brunnhilde, brought to life in true Wagnerian fashion by soprano Jessica Chen – a superb addition to the entertainment.

This was not only a great evening of fabulous music and witty dialogue but it served for many in the audience unaccustomed to the Wagner scene as a fine and persuasively meaningful introduction to this composer rightly dubbed as “The Master of Opera”.

Wagner's RING in 90 minutes and 1 Valkyrie

Opera Siam 

in collaboration with Siam Sinfonietta and members of the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and the Deutsche Opera Berlin


Opera Siam 15the Season Opening Gala Concert 
in 90 minutes and 1 Valkyie

with Jessica Chen as Brünnhilde
Siam Sinfonietta conducted by Somtow Sucharitkul 

Don't want to sit through 16 hours and 4 days of Wagner? get all the "good bits" for orchestra in a single evening - it's all there - the Ride of the Valkyries, Siegfried's funeral march, Forest Murmurs, Magic Fire Music ... plus the bonus of Jessica Chen's stunning Brünnhilde in some thrilling excerpts. 

Held together with an entertaining narrative by Maestro Somtow.

Each year, the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra collaborates with Siam Sinfonietta by sending top international musicians to work with our young people. This year there will be collaboration from the Deutsche Opera Berlin as well.

Ticket prices 500 and 1000 baht and as always there will shuttle service available from Bangkok to the fabulous hall in Rangsit. Special student and senior rate available.

The Eroica Symphony – Why It's Important

by Somtow Sucharitkul

It’s been called the most influential work in the history of music. I would like to give you some of the reasons. The Siam Sinfonietta, our youth orchestra, is opening its Sixth Season with this symphony. I hope everyone who reads this will come. It’s a free concert, so you have nothing to lose.

There are many bigger works than the Eroica. Beethoven himself also wrote the monumental Ninth, and if you’re talking monumental there’s always Mahler 8. In an earlier era, the Bach B minor mass is iconic, too. But the Eroica draws a line in the sand not just for music, but for all western art.

Before the Eroica Symphony, artists were servants whose worked served to glorify a patron. It could be a King, a rich banker like the Medici family, or even God himself, but the point is that what artists did was attached to something, was an adjunct, a decoration. The Eroica Symphony does not revolve around its patron — or even around Napoleon, who originally inspired it. It is the first music to be an end in itself, the first work of art to herald a new kind of hierarchy in which the artist, not the lord of the manor, is at the center of the universe.

The first performance of the Eroica was in a nobleman’s house. Its audience was baffled and bewildered. Some said that a piece this long, this difficult, and this complicated couldn’t possibly really be music. The first movement alone was as long as many symphonies of its time, and it is relentless, battering the senses with wave upon wave of vehement passion. The second movement is a gutwrenching funeral march in which you can hear the germ of every funeral march in every Mahler symphony … and of Siegfried’s funeral march … and of every funeral march that had not yet been composed in 1804. The word scherzo means a joke, but the third movement isn’t that funny — it’s a careening roller coaster ride interrupted by a hunting scene. And the Finale — in those days a Finale was supposed to bring a symphony to a close with something light and frothy, but instead we have a huge set of variations that runs an entire gamut of emotion.

Teaching the Eroica Symphony to a bunch of 12-24 year olds has been a rollercoaster as well, especially here in Thailand where the stylistic techniques of the classical period are not often taught. We are getting there — this is the first concert of the season with many new faces in the orchestra, some of whom probably didn’t quite know what they were getting into when they signed up for this very intense ensemble. I hope you will hear a Beethoven you don’t hear too often in this country. We will see — there is still some rehearsal time left.

I’d like to close by pointing out the special relevance of this work to this exact and place. You see, culturally, we are at a similar point to where Beethoven stood in Europe in 1804. The arts in Thailand are emerging from a perception that they are decorative, that they exist to enhance the barami of a patron, that art is something that flows downward from a court or a cultural ministry — to a whole new way of looking at art — to the idea that art is supposed to say important things, to teach us who we are. In a sense, we are looking for our own Eroica Symphony, for a work that will definitively revolutionize our perception of what art is.

And so we come to the figure of Napoleon, who plays such an important role in this work. It is said that Beethoven was inspired by Napoleon, the heroic liberator, to compose this work, and that when he learned that Napoleon had crowned himself emperor, he tore up the dedication page, shouting “So he too is mortal after all.”

Haven’t many of us in Thailand recently had a similar experience? No, I am not really saying that Thaksin is Napoleon. Just pointing out that we’ve all felt what Beethoven felt, with one idolized person or another — someone we thought might save the universe turning out to be “mortal after all.”

It may just be that the Eroica Symphony is a more accurate mirror of our world here than of twenty-first century Europe.

To find out, here’s a link to get a free ticket: https://goo.gl/XUDgsG

Please tell all your friends as well. And here is the Facebook Event:


Suryadhep Music Sala, Rangsit — Siam Sinfonietta — Copland Fanfare for the Common Man, Prokofiev Love of Three Oranges Suite, and Beethoven Symphony No. 3 in E flat, “Eroica” 7:30 pm. Thursday, October 15, 2015.