COM 03/2015

Interview with Somtow Papinian Sucharitkul

Somtow Papinian Sucharitkul, awarding winning novelist and opera composer


Somtow Papinian Sucharitkul, awarding winning novelist and opera composer, has been the artistic director of the Bangkok Opera since its foundation in 2002. Under his directorship the Bangkok opera has become one of the most prestigious cultural institutions in Thailand attracting lovers of operas from all over the world. The interview below informs about the background, cross-cultural experiences and current work of a man who once was referred to as the best known Thai in the world, selected one of the 40 internationally most acclaimed Thais and in 2013 received the Golden W Award of the International Wagner Society for his contributions of bringing the work of Richard Wagner to Southeast Asia.

Mr. Somtow, we know from your background that you grew up in Western countries and that you had been moving between East and West. What do you feel as a person influenced by both cultures?

Yes, that is quite an interesting question because, normally, most of the people think of me as being a bi-cultural person. But actually, I was being formed by three different cultures, not two. I spent my childhood in Europe but most of my career has been in the United States which is as different from Europe as Thailand is different from Europe. So in that sense it is a kind of predictable question to answer. But the reality of that is when I left this country I was about six months old and after that I lived in about half a dozen countries before the age of twelve, so, because of that I have never actually specifically belonged to one culture. My father was collecting degrees from different universities and, when I was born, we moved to Oxford. After that my dad went to Harvard and then we lived in Paris because he did another degree at the Sorbonne, and then he was working at the international law courts in The Hague. All of that happened before I was about eight years old at which age I came back to Thailand for the first time. At that age I could not speak Thai at all. My parents had been using it like a secret language but they never taught it to me. I could actually speak Dutch better than Thai, although that is not true anymore. There are certain elements that all cultures have in common and usually they relate to very ancient things, mythic things. Also they relate to traditional or very basic old cultural ideas. They often are more constant and because of that, my world was also formed by very old ideas, things like mythologies. They remained the same wherever I went whereas other things did not. This is actually the reason why I ended up doing this sort of things I do for a living.

You have experienced audiences in the West and in Asia. Is there a difference regarding the reception of classical music between Europe and Asia, particularly Southeast Asia?

How classical music is received is a very interesting question, because in the West people have been complaining for the last twenty years that the audience is getting very old. Of course they also said that two hundred years ago. Actually people have always said that the audience is getting too old. So, in fact it is sort of an illusion. But the interesting thing is that when I do extremely intellectual things in this country I get a very young and committed audience. When I first came to this country and began doing classical music there were two kinds of audience. There was the expatriate audience which is already familiar with this culture. And then there were rich people who only want to wear diamonds while going to the opera. But in the last 15 years, since I have come back to Thailand, there is change, and now we have a much younger and more enthusiastic audience than European countries. This is because young people have taken certain things that can be inherited from Western society and then reinterpreted them in their own way. This is what we are doing. However, I am still hearing the older people say, “Why are you doing this foreign art form like opera?”, and then I have to say “So you say we should have no movies, no television because it is all a foreign art form, this is what you are saying, right?” They said “Oh, no, no!” And then I say well, once upon a time about fifty years ago you would say “Why are we watching television? We should be going to Li-kay[1].” When I was a child every television program, Channel 5 and Channel 7, showed foreign movies. We grew up with sit- coms like Leave It to ‘Beaver and I love Lucy’ and our adventure movies were ‘The Outer Limits’ and ‘The Twilight Zone’. There was no Thai program whatsoever. So, of course people might say this is foreign. But today, television is completely integrated in a way that nobody could imagine that it is not completely native. Of course, all the foreign programs still exist but on top of that there is more. And the same thing applies to the cinema. There is a unique Thai cinema even though it is not the cinema that people in Thailand think is unique. There are many Thai films that are very well received internationally and they are not even shown in Thailand. But they are unique. Nobody except a Thai could make a movie like the ones of Apichatphong[2]. Nobody else could make it. They are completely Thai. So, we cannot say that it is a foreign art form. So, when I produce new operas that I have written, even though they are in English, they could not have been written by somebody who is not Thai. They are completely Thai. I use English to communicate because opera is an international media and when you use a more rare language to create operas you limit the numbers of performers. Opera performances all over the world have singers from every country. Opera is an international profession where you go to other cities to perform. It is not a profession where you stay in one town. So there is a limited number of languages that operas can be written and performed in. The work of some composers in the last twenty or thirty years has become so well known that it is exposing the new generation of opera singer to learn in another language. For example, now the opera singers have to know Czech as well, as well as German, French, Italian, English and Russian because younger Czechs have become very important opera composers and these operas are written in Czech. I do not want to risk this myself, I speak English.

Let us talk about your latest production ‘Brundibár’. What to  your understanding is the humanitarian massage of this opera? And how has it been received among the Thai audience?

The reason we did ‘Brundibár’ is really that I discovered that many of my students did not know that Thailand was in the Second World War. And they did not know that Thailand was on the side of Japan. They did not know that. The problem is that the history books in Thailand are very revisionist. And many things that people should know, they do not know. We know that there is an incredible gap of ignorance that we cannot blame young Thai people that much because, as you know, in America kids do not know about the Vietnam War. And they certainly do not know that America lost the war. In the same way, most Thais do not realize that Thailand was defeated by the Allies in the Second World War. I wanted to do this opera which is written by Hans Krása. Hans Krása was a Jewish Czech composer who was imprisoned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Before he was sent, he wrote it for an opera competition for children, a children opera. But before the competition could take place, the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia and all the Jews were sent to this camp. This was like a VIP camp because all the great Jewish artists were imprisoned there. For example, half of the Czech Philharmonic was Jewish and they were all sent there. So it was a very highly cultured concentration camp. Anyway, the Nazis tried to pretend that this was a normal camp. And that they were being well-treated. So they got to do lot of cultural things there, and one of the things happened there was that Hans Krása was able to produce this opera ‘Brundibár’ with children who were in the camp. And it was so impressive that it was performed over fifty times in the camp. The Nazis made a film of ‘Brundibár’ and used it as propaganda. They showed this opera when the Red Cross came to inspect the camps. And everybody wrote back saying, oh, nothing happened here, the Jews are fine. But after they made the film, the children were all sent to Auschwitz and they were all killed. But the opera itself is a very positive and beautiful work about the triumph of good over evil and it is also secretly subversive because the villain in the opera is clearly supposed to be Hitler. When they performed this opera, they always wondered how the Nazis did not realize it. They would say it is in Czech and they do not speak Czech so they just do not realize it. And the second thing they would say is “They are going to kill us anyway.” So they did not care. Those were the two explanations why they got away with that. In fact, there was another opera called ‘The Kaiser von Atlantis’. That was going to be done in the camp but the Nazis actually censured it and refused it. But somehow they got away with ‘Brundibár’. But the text of the ‘Kaiser von Atlantis’ was in German so they probably understood the text. So that was the reason why I am doing this opera and I was amazed to discover that no one in Asia had done it. So when we did ‘Brundibár’ it was quite historic. I think the way we produced that opera was sort of designed to really send the message about the Second World War. We had the whole cast wearing concentration camp uniforms when they performed this opera. It was quite powerful, a lot of people were crying.

So the reaction from the Thai audience was quite impressive?

Yes, I think so. Well, there were not many Thais in some nights. On some nights there were. But those people who were there did get the massage. I think it was useful. We have been invited to present this production in the Czech Republic. So, I have to teach the whole opera to my performers again in Czech because we did it in English before. The reason we did it in English is not that I did not want to do it in the original language but because there was not enough time to teach it. But if we do it in Czech we will get some tutors to help the kids. It is a little difficult because Czech has a lot of consonants. There are many words like ‘Zmuzlina’. It contains five consonants. And there are many words like that in the text and they have to sing the opera very fast. But I think they can do it. Actually, the kids told me that it is easier to sing in Czech than in German which I find is very strange. Because, the more you grow up in music the more you are always used to grow up with German all the time. So, I am used to it. But it turned out that the kids found it easier for the phonetics, a little bit easier. Actually by the way the music is written it is actually easier to sing it in Czech than in English, because of the way they are stressing tones or notes.

Are most of the audience foreigners?

Well, half of the audience is made up of foreigners what is quite a lot. Usually, I get a much larger local audience. They came from everywhere. And some people have actually flown in from Germany to see it. And the German government gave quite a lot of money for this. At first, I did not invite them to give any money. It was the Israeli and Czech governments. But then, I guess, you know, guilt can be a very useful thing sometimes. But the Germans ended up being very, very helpful.

Do you think there is a difference between Thai people who are listening to your music and other people? Do you think they interpret it in the same way?

I think that the young Thai people who are in our audience are quite a lot more serious and less superficial. And I think that the audience in Thailand is better, especially the young audience.

Has the quality of international audience declined?

Well, you know they say it has declined, but it really has not. But, when you play these things here, the level of excitement is often a lot higher among the people who come from Thailand. Two days ago, I performed Mahler’s ‘9th Symphony’ in Rangsit. Many people drove all the way from Bangkok to see it. The problem is that some people are always saying: “Why are you playing this? This is too damaging for us to comprehend.” And basically what I respond is that Thai classical dance-theater is even harder to understand because, for example, Thai classical music songs and even single notes deliver specific meanings and knowledge is required to fully grasp those meanings. Unfortunately Thai people are not receiving education to obtain that knowledge. In this regard, I assume that Western classical music is even easier to understand for the Thai audience.

How do you assess the development of classical music in Thailand in recent years, and how do you see the cultural policy of the different governments of the past years in this light?

Well, the government has been saying for many years “We must turn Thailand into a major hub of culture and innovation”. Well, the news is that Thailand is a major center of culture and innovation. They do not need to do anything to turn it. It already is. Of course, many of the things that are so innovative and new and exciting are not the kinds of things that they are giving money to. They are happening in spite of that, not because of that. But why am I here and not back in Los Angeles where I can make money much easier and would not have to work so hard? Because it is actually exciting to work here. It is challenging. And I can do extremely adventurous things I could never dream of doing. For example, right now, I am writing a cycle of ten operas. It is the complete ‘The Ten Lives of Lord Buddha’. The longest opera cycle in the world has four operas. I am doing little bits of it yet every year. Next month, we are going to premiere the third part of the cycle, the ‘The Silent Prince’. It is very exciting. I am combining dance and song in a new way. And it is very much influenced by Asian art forms. But it is also very Western. I had the idea of doing this piece because when it is finished it will actually be the largest stage work in history. And, secondly, it can be a new focus for cultural tourism in this country. People will come. If you go to see the Ring cycle in Germany, you have to book ten years in advance to get a ticket. My idea is to create a work of that kind of scale, but one that is uniquely Asian so that people would really have to come here to really appreciate it. And it gives employment to hundreds of artists and singers and musicians and scenery designers and costume designers. It gives employment to so many people for years and years. Since I am getting old now, I figure that this big cycle of ten big works is going to be my final gift to the Thai people before I die.

So, this will be your project for years ahead?

Yes, I am in the middle of it. Actually, some of them will be quite short and some of them will be full-length. Because not every ’life’ can be a full-length opera. Some of them will be only very short ones. So, my feeling is that ’The Ten Lives of Lord Buddha’ will take about five evenings to show. That means that the tourists will come for a week and every night they will go to see it. I think it is what we need to capture people’s imagination. We need some very big ideas. That is what I am doing.

Do you have any support from the government for your work?

Well, although this particular government says that they are being very supportive we actually got more money from the Thaksin government. I cannot really say whether it is good or bad, because I think they want to do the right thing, but they are not quite sure what the right thing is yet. So, we need to gently push them in the right direction. Because they are soldiers. They don’t know anything. We just have to help them. However, not directly. Because if you tell these people directly they will cut off your head. You just need to gently push them. I do not think that they intend to harm us. Sometimes they just have an old-fashioned way of looking at the world.

We know that you are also a writer. Do you see any difference between these two works?

To me there is no difference whatsoever between writing and music. I started writing books because the last time I came to Thailand in the 70s, my music was so badly received that I burnt out. And it took twenty years to come back.

Are they published also in Thai or only in English?

Some of my works have been translated into Thai. I have been translated into twenty other languages. But Thai was the last one to be translated into. Postbooks Publishing House is trying to bring out more of my books. They are publishing them all in a series. The whole deal has been put together by Khun Ngarmpun Vejjajiva who came up with the idea of a series.

Thank you very much for the interview, Mr. Somtow.

The interview conducted by Siraprapa Chalermphao; Pictures by Siravich Teevakul

[1] Likay is a popular folk theater form in Thailand. (Remark of the editor)

[2] Apichatpong Weerasethakul, award winning film director. Among other awards he won the Palme d’Or prize, the highst award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010, for his film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. (Remark of the editor)