Friday, December 28, 2007

Story of My Life

What need have I to discuss my life as the intendant of the Bangkok Opera when Dr Vornhoff has said it so much better?


Friday, December 21, 2007

Tit for TAT


Many years ago, I was invited by TAT (The Tourism Authority of Thailand) to serve on an advisory board for what looked like an exciting new film festival. So, of course, I made a point of asking my friends in Hollywood "high places" about the international partners who were coming on the project. What my friends told me was that there might be something fishy about some of these people, so as part of my duties as an advisor, I thought I had better send a private and confidential email to the governor of the TAT to let her know that she should be careful.

Shortly after this email, I found myself shut out of everything to do with the festival, and indeed heard many rumors that things that subsequently went wrong with the festival were being blamed on "Somtow's big mouth". Rather surprising since my note was completely confidential and not designed to be shared with anyone. The governor stopped taking my calls and a two million baht grant from TAT to the Bangkok Opera, already promised and already worked into our budget (indeed, we had been told to go ahead and use their logo on posters) mysteriously failed to materialize. As has frequently happened to me since returning to Thailand, my honesty, good intentions, and attempts to make our society more open and self-aware were being severely and vindictively punished, and for no real reason, since what we were doing was beneficial to the country and would have reflected well on the grantor.

I was therefore not very surprised, but deeply saddened, to read all the news about alleged malfeasance and corruption during that administration. However, I absolutely have to say this, and will swear to it in any court: our foundation recently received a grant from the new, post-coup administration of TAT. And although there were numerous problems with timing and red tape, at no time was I ever solicited for any bribe. It was never intimated by anyone that any under-the-table payouts were expected. Everyone, from the Minister down to the lowest official we talked to, was concerned only about the money being spent in ways that enhanced Thailand's image as an international cultural destination.

As you know, I have never hesitated to criticise our government (or any other government) when it oversteps its mandate. However, my recent experience with this ministry on this occasion has been one in which they may have been inefficient, but not at all corrupt. My frustrations were always to do with timing and paperwork and never about honesty. My conclusion is that Dr. Suwit and his minions are doing a heroic job cleaning out these Augean Stables, and I hope that his blood pressure can take a couple more months of this....

I'd be interested to know if anyone else has dealt with TAT recently and whether there are stories to share about the new administration versus the old one.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Wagner, Werewolves, and Whatnot



You know you're in the twenty-first century when you begin the day in alarm, noting that Peter Straub's army of werewolves on Facebook is creeping up on your own army of zombies. You then consume a carbohydrate-free chocolate bar, flown in from America, while deciding whether the orchestra should play Mahler 5 or Mahler 9 in the March concert....

It really is a joy to be living in this doomed age, with the carcinogen-laden air heating up around us, not knowing when the planet will explode. And STILL to be able to conduct the RING cycle ... and even dare to hope one is saying something new! God, it's exciting.

Some reviews are starting to come in. On the whole they have been pretty generous. Indeed, as the year draws to a close, I have to admit that it is amazing what we have managed to get away with again. Although at the time it seemed like hell itself, in retrospect it seems to have been quite something. Someone writing in French called Charles Hens the "most beautiful Siegmund I've ever seen", and another critic said that Janny Zomer was "the best Sieglinde I've ever seen on stage." A visitor from Berlin said, "You ever see opera done with such passion in Europe anymore" and so I think the consensus was, in spite of some wild orchestral gaffes and a few booboos from the stage, that there was a lot of excitement.

Now it can be said that the TAT grant for this production did come through ... on the opening night. It was a Friday, however, and the check could not clear in time to pay for the production. I had to make a clean sweep of my parents, my own bank account, and several friends to make sure that there was money to pay the singers before they left for their various countries. However, I have to say this: although there was certainly a lot of excruciating red tape, and our grant arrived nine months after it was authorized, we were never asked by any official for any under the table contributions to "speed up" the process. I have to say this clearly because the FBI has just filed a huge case involving Americans bribing the TAT, which all happened before the coup. Tomorrow, the news is going to hit all the Thai papers. I caught it early because friends in the U.S. happened to send me emails about it. I want to say that, though I've not always been a champion of our present government, nobody in the ministry of tourism and sport ever, ever, asked us for a bribe.

I have to say that the good buzz about the Wagner has made the year end on a quite positive note. I think Siegfried will actually have most of the kinks ironed out. I'm going to spend the next few days Christmas shopping and not think about any of this.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Pullman the Hittite


While tourists were being clubbed by cops not too far from the Holiday Inn in Macau, I lay around watching CNN. And it was there that I learned that the Catholic Church has been urging that we all shun the new film of Phillip Pullman's Northern Lights, known to some as The Golden Compass. Naturally, I wondered how an alternate universe fantasy novel populated by non-humans could possibly pose a threat to the might and majesty of the Catholic Church, so I decided I'd better fill a lacuna in my encyclopaedic knowledge of the field by running out and buying the book, which was oddly enough one of the few books in English that was for sale at the Macau airport.

Finishing the novel as my plane landed back in Bangkok, I realized that this trilogy is the real thing. How could people have slogged their way through thousands of pages of Harry Potter novels when such gems as this are available?

Take "back story" for instance. Recently, J.K. revealed that Dumbledore is gay. Now this is a wonderful example of the iceberg theory of literature. But for the iceberg to, as it were, hold water, you actually have to plant some kind of glimmering shadow of a hint somewhere in the text itself. Revealing the subtext at a public gathering is really, in a sense, cheating.

Pullman, on the other hand, doesn't cheat. For instance, in the second book he makes a passing reference that in Lyra's world, "anbarics" is a term that more or less corresponds to electromagnetics in our world. The characters then do a bit of folk etymology, relating anbar to amber (thus to electrum, which means amber) and so on. I bet it never comes up again (I'm reading the third book while editing the video of Die Walküre).

This is just casually thrown away, and yet there must be one or two other people in the world reading the book who happen to know that "anbar" is also Akkadian for iron. The symbol for "Anbar" was used by the Hittites (in the manner that the Japanese use Chinese symbols as kanji) but we don't know how the Hittites pronounced it. I happen to know this only because of some research I once did for a novel set in the Bronze Age.

Because this word is alluded to by Pullman, there is, in consequence, a huge submerged iceberg chunk of lost history and prehistory, about what exact point in the past the worlds must have diverged, about linguistic speculation, about Indo-European societies, etc. etc. All this hinted at so cunningly that I'm probably the only person within a thousand miles to have glimpsed it, which means that there are a thousand other hints that I did NOT get because they involve some arcane piece of knowledge I happen not to possess.

Well, after that I decided to see the movie and while I admit that it is has been dumbed down a lot, it still manages to convey the richness and strangeness of that universe pretty well. So I'm a bit distressed to hear people prophesy that it will mean the end of New Line and all that. I think that maybe they should have not dumbed it down at all, or conversely dumbed it down to nothing (the fate that befell The Neverending Story). What I didn't see was a blatant attack on the Catholic Church. For that. you'll have to look at Ken Russell's The Devils or any movie about Joan of Arc....

Tomorrow, more on Wagner....

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Wagner.... phew!


Die Walküre in Bangkok? With a world class cast and a fresh Asian viewpoint? Impossible!

As I write these words, I'm taking what some would call a well-deserved rest, sleeping all day long in a hotel room in Macau. I come to this hotel when I want to escape for a day, because if I go to, for instance, Singapore or Hanoi, I would probably run into someone I know. This place is also across the street from the best barbecued pork I've ever had. However ... though I haven't left the room all day ... I looked up at the CNN screen which is running in the background ... and I notice that the police are wildly beating up a bunch of tourists here, who are protesting because their tour guide has taken them to too many shopping malls. It is apparently something of a riot!

What a relief from Thailand, where people only riot over such mundane matters as political corruption!

As the fallout begins to come in from Die Walküre, it is becoming increasingly clear that this production was a turning point. Not just as the fulfilment of a childhood dream (though of course it is the ultimate power fantasy to be both conducting and directing The Ring Cycle) but after November 30, the idea of "what is artistically possible in Thailand" suddenly became much bigger. After all, this was operatically the biggest, most daring thing ever done here, with the most accomplished batch of world-class singers and the the most ambitious work for a local orchestra. Of course, it didn't all work, but I'm getting many more approving emails than usual, many from completely strangers. There's a "feature review"coming out this Friday in the Financial Times; that doesn't mean they liked it, but it does mean they considered it an important event. Anyway, they didn't like the recent Covent Garden or Vienna Rings, so panning us would put us in great company.

Perhaps all the drama will never be told ... at least, not until I can find someone to buy the next installment of my memoirs. At any rate, I'll spill the beans a bit at a time over the next few days, because I'm still sooooo tired....

Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Valkyries in Bangkok


My wild production, after a rollercoaster of a journey to get there, opened on Friday. The last night is tonight. There's a LOT to say about this, but I am on my way to a rehearsal now ... maybe more news tomorrow (if I survive.)

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Thai Toad Test


Last week I was on the radio on the inimitable Dr Poonpit's show, chatting about Wagner. Only, as so frequently happens when we start to chat, the subject begins to stray, and the good doctor began to describe an interesting piece of Thai traditional medicine which was practiced during his apprenticeship in back in the "dark times" ... well, let's say the 1940s or thereabouts. Toads were used as a pregnancy test.

The young apprentices had to catch male toads by moonlight each night and deliver them to the Siriraj hospital by morning. The toads were then assigned to different obstetricians in order of seniority. If there weren't enough toads, junior ob-gyns had to wait their turn.

The male toads received a sort of enema of the testee's urine sample, after which, it seems, if the woman was pregnant, the toad would become excited to the extent that its own bodily effluvium would contain a higher sperm count. This sample, viewed under a microscope, was the test which, according to Dr. Poonpit, is one of the few nuggets of genuine, Thai-originated medical knowledge ever to be discussed in learned circles in the west under the name of the Thai Toad Test.

This is the kind of thing one learns when one goes on the air to promote "Die Walküre"....

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Charred Hand of Fate


Waking up from a nightmare.…

Well, that's not an uncommon experience in life, but this one has haunted me all day. We are in the midst of a wildly exciting production of Wagner's Die Walküre, with a shatteringly brilliant cast.

So, last night, I am in a car, driving through a deserted country road with my co-director Anette Pollner. We reach a stretch of the road where once, some time ago, someone has been run over.

As my car reaches the spot where the accident happened, the charred hand of a dead person busts through the floor of the car (Carrie popup style) and grabs my arm and tries to pull me down through the bottom of the car. I'm sinking in and the dead person pulls so hard that I start to go through the floor. But the car is still in motion so there is a monstrous tug of war. I hold on to things, the steering wheel, the gearshift, trying to prevent myself from being sucked down, but as I wake it seems about to happen....

I discovered that my breathing machine has sprung a leak, and that the mask doesn't fit well enough. Maybe that is the reason for all this....

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Unclipping the Wings



It was a depressing day, but answers came to me in a dream. Oddly enough, it was someone else's dream.

A long time ago (it seems) I met a young composer in the interval at a concert. He was 15. He told me wanted to write music "when he grew up". I half-jokingly said, "So what've you composed?" He then started to pull bits of manuscript paper out of hit backpack. One of them was "a Chopin-sort of polonaise, only I used an Isaan melody". It was because this kid knew virtually nothing at the stage, and yet had already learned how to be playful with what he knew, that I realized the extent of his creativity. I had a dream a few days later; I dreamed I was teaching Trisdee to fly.

Recently, I was in great despair over my whole existence, as I frequently have been lately: in some ways, artistically in particular, things have never looked better, yet the (as it were) forces of evil seem to be growing in viciousness, and the forces of coincidence even more vicious than the deliberately evil; and on Wednesday, I set myself a deadline. If a dramatic breakthrough didn't happen, I was going to make some life-altering decisions, such as going back to writing full time and chucking the opera, or even changing course more radically.

Partly it was because a government agency had agreed to give us a large grant, but the actual cheque was stuck in red tape for months, causing me to have to borrow money from my friends to subsidize the opera, and if the red tape was not unravelled, I was going to end up selling flowers on the street; partly it's the long term malaise brought on by thousands of disinformative spam attacks that were made against me months ago, by my the onset of serious apnea, etc. etc. And the fact that my opera salary is four years in arrears and that everything I might otherwise do to actually earn a living is on hold, etc etc. Well, there it is, the normal roller coaster of an artist's existence, but at its very nadir.

A day before the deadline, Trisdee had a dream and he bust into my office to tell me this. He said, "You were sitting in a hotel lobby with a man in a dark suit." Then he said, "You have been searching for a lost pin. A package came for you. I handed you the package it had a brooch in the shape of wings. also some other things, cloth."

I thought back to my own dream six years before and I understood that the gift of flight is being returned to me. I had in fact been sitting in the lobby of the Sheraton with a man in black only that afternoon, a British impresario who runs an operatic tour company. (Trisdee is too young to know that in the 1960s, unaccompanied minors on planes got to visit the cockpit and always received a brooch in the shape of wings as a memento from the captain. There's too much fear in the air now for such beautiful moments.)

On the very day of the deadline, the government agency sent me a piece of paper guaranteeing that they would write the opera the cheque. That isn't the cheque itself, but it is a major breakthrough in the bureaucratic labyrinth. Perhaps, having spent the last seven years here showing young people how to fly, I will be allowed to fly myself, again, before it is too late.

And I'll Cry If I Want To


Here's a blurry pic from the party described in this blog a week or so ago ... Viscount Bangor, the inimitable Trisdee, Anette whose book "Bangkok Blondes" just came out, your humble narrator, best-selling biographer Sarah Bradford, banned filmmaker Ing K, Ambassadress Barrington of New Zealand, and David Giler, one of the "Tales from the Crypt" partners. Certainly a namedroppingworthy snapshot of a typical evening at my house ... nah, not really. Only 12.5% of the people depicted are in the Thailand Tatler Society 500. I'm a failure.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

"What's Opera, Doc?" Deconstructed for the Layman



Many, many years ago, I sat down to write a funny guide to opera for the uninitiated which I was sure would be a big hit. As usually happens when I think of some sure-fire idea, nobody believes me, and it was a decade later before all those idiot's guides started coming out. And indeed I couldn't get anyone to publish it; the only person who wanted to do so was my friend (and father of my godson) Hank Stine, who was working for a New Age publisher at the time … but before he could do anything about it, he got sucked into the sex change world.

Recently I discovered part of the ms on an old hard drive and one of the chapters was an analysis of that great Chuck Jones cartoon, What's Opera, Doc? So, for those of you who simply have to know which Wagner opera is quoted from at every moment of this cartoon's soundtrack, I'm posting the chapter to this blog....

Here goes....

Now on to What’s Opera, Doc? in which the war between Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny — the timeless dance of the hunter and the prey — is transported into that most exotic of realms, the world of Wagner’s monumental four-opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung. The plot of this thing, pretty familiar to those who have read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, much of which is ripped off from Wagner’s masterpiece of teutonic overstatement, concerns a magic ring, dwarves, dragons, dumb jocks with big swords, and the like. It also features Wotan (the German name for the god Odin, familiar to all fans of Marvel Comics’ Mighty Thor series) a god whose career as Lord of Valhalla pretty much parallels the real-life career of President Richard Nixon.

I’m sure you’re all familiar with the Bugs Bunny cartoon version. You have all enjoyed Elmer Fudd’s rousing rendition of the “Kill the Wabbit” theme and been aroused by the spectacle of Bugs Bunny sliding down a horse’s steatopygous derrière whilst wearing a brass brasière.

But how many of you realize how many Wagnerian musical themes are used in this cartoon? How many understand the many levels of irony implicit in the musical subtext? After you have examined the chart which follows, I am sure you will be convinced that director Chuck Jones’s complexity of vision is every bit the equal of, say, Ingmar Bergman’s.

I don’t believe anyone has provided such a chart before, but here it is. What I’ve done is provide a key to every musical motif used in the cartoon, along with some notes which, I am sure, will be of great use to you should you find your self at a loss for words at one of the cocktail parties described in the preceding chapter

What’s Opera, Doc? — a listener’s guide. Each segment describes briefly what we see in the cartoon, then discusses the music that we hear accompanying the visuals.


(1) Opening Credits

Orchestra tuning up.
Trombone solo: Flying Dutchman theme
Clarinet solo: Venusberg Music from
Tannhäuser
Trumpet solo: Valkyrie Theme from The Ring

(2) Thunder and Wild Weather

Flying Dutchman theme — climaxes in huge chords which are a theme from The Ring that represents, believe it or not, bondage

(3) “Be vewwy vewwy quiet I’m hunting wabbit:

just singing — not a theme from The Ring
Elmer stalking Valkyrie theme played by a muted trumpet accompanied by pizzicato strings

“Wabbit Twacks! Kill the Wabbit!”

Full blown Valkyrie theme as played inThe Ride of the Valkyries, Act III of Die Walküre

“Ho-yo-to-ho!”

Brünnhilde’s War Cry, first heard in Act II of Die Walküre

(4) Bugs Bunny appears.

“O Mighty warrior of great fighting stock,
Might I inquire to ask, eh, What’s up, Doc?”

Siegfried’s Horn Call, first heard in the opera Siegfried, the third part of The Ring

(5) Elmer Fudd describes his Magic Helmet

What’s this? There is a magic helmet theme in The Ring, but for some reason it doesn’t appear at this juncture in the cartoon. Could Chuck Jones be telling us it’s the wrong magic helmet?

(6) Elmer Fudd demonstrates his Magic Helmet

We start off with a weird, distorted brass version of the Song of Woodbird theme from Siegfried, then we launch into a reprise of the Flying Dutchman theme. Of course, this theme doesn’t appear in The Ring, and it is perfectly okay for you to put on a huffy purist attitude at this point and become indignant at Mr. Jones’s ignorance.


(7) Elmer Fudd sees Bugs Bunny, attired as a woman, riding a horse. He thinks Bugs is the beautiful Valkyrie Brünnhilde.

The Pilgrim’s Chorus from the opera Tannhäuser is heard at this point. This is appropriate, since the pious Fudd, who has been doing his proper huntsman’s duty, is about to fall victim to his repressed libidinous desires.

(8) Bugs, still impersonating a female, leads Elmer on a wild goose chase. Both characters execute a number of tricky ballet steps, such as the fiendishly difficult fouetté and arabesque.

The Venusberg music from Tannhäuser. Wildly appropriate. This ballet music was added to the opera Tannhäuser to appease a Paris audience’s demand for a ballet in every opera’s second act. The crowd rioted when the ballet appeared the the wrong Act. Wagner never went down well with the French after that. It is supposed to represent uninhibited and decadent sexual excess, and the spectacle of a little bald midget trying to get it on with a transvestite certain qualifies as sexual excess in my book.

(9) Love Duet

Ironically, we are back to the Pilgrim’s Crusader theme.

(10) Helmet falls off — Bugs Bunny’s gender deception is revealed

Falling scale theme — could be a reference to the theme of Wotan’s spear in The Ring. The spear represents the sacredness of pacts and treaties and the fact that we hear it here could imply the breaking off of the relationship between Elmer and Bugs due to Bugs’s abrupt gender reversal.

(11) “Kill the Wabbit” A reprise of the Valkyrie theme.

(12) Bugs Bunny’s Death

Once more, a return to the Pilgrim’s Chorus. Elmer Fudd’s tragic repentance at his thoughtless slaying of Bugs Bunny is quite touching. One recalls that in the Ring cycle it is rather the opposite that takes place — the beautiful Brünnhilde, in a fit of jealous pique, causes the tragic death of Siegfried. The gender reversal is followed by a rôle reversal. Fairy, fairy interestink!

Now it can clearly be seen from all this that What’s Opera, Doc doesn’t just condense everything in the fifteen-hour Ring Cycle into a mere seven minutes.. A lot of other Wagner operas are referred to as well, often with an irony that demands considerable knowledge on the part of the audience. Tannhäuser and The Flying Dutchman are Wagner operas that bear no thematic relation to The Ring of the Nibelung, but Chuck Jones has managed to tie them all in anyway.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Mortality


The smiling young man you see in the upper left hand corner of today's blog is Dichpong, a gentle viola player who has been in my orchestra for years. Everyone liked him. He never had a bad thing to say, never lost his temper, never complained, and even a day or two ago he and his friends were merrily chatting away on msn. Now, he has apparently committed suicide.

I'm very bummed out about this. I mean, it would be different if I dropped dead. I've already had time to dash off a few books and operas. I'm angry with myself for not magically being able to fix it.

Then again, I suppose I might drop dead. My new breathing machine, being shipped in from Europe, is stuck in customs....

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Sic Transit


Unlike most of my readers, I do actually know God. We were at Eton together. I'm referring of course to His Imperial Highness Crown Prince Zere-Yacob of Ethiopia, who would be emperor if there were still an emperor, and, at least according to some Rastas, has inherited his grandfather's divinitas as well the imperium. I haven't seen him for something like forty years, but I particularly remember that once, the owner of a small grocery store nicknamed "Tudor Hole" on the Eton High Street invited us both to tea, because we were at that exact time the only two foreigners in the entire school. At least, the only two people who weren't white. He was a charming, slightly chubby boy. Perhaps he was as weirded out by the tea party as I was. Still, I think we liked each other.

I found myself thinking about him again last night. I don't know why, really; perhaps it was from a desperation born of having so much to do one just wants to procrastinate everything. But in the twenty-first century one can always google, so I decided to start hunting down my erstwhile schoolmate, post-apotheosis. I soon stumbled on an Imperial Ethiopian College of Heraldry (which was a bit of surprise — I hadn't realized that Ethiopia went in for any of that mediaeval pageantry) — operating out of Maryland! — and learned of many fascinating things, including the (alleged) fact that HIH had founded a knightly order which foreigners could join if they did something for Ethiopia. A few mouse-clicks later, I landed on the home page of some American guy who was an actual member of this order, and who revealed that "doing something for Ethiopia" was only to the tune of a $500 "passage fee" followed by an annual "oblation" of $250. Now at first it might seem outlandish that a knighthood could be purchased so cheaply, but then I got to thinking how many starving third world families $500 could actually save from death and I thought to myself, why not? If you rescue lives at the cost of puffing up someone's vanity, why not?

After all, I reflected, there are dozens of purveyors of titles on the web, offering duchies for dough, and this looked like something real that would actually benefit a country that needs help.

So I thought to myself (at 3 am), I mean, hey, why not. I'll bite. Then I started clicking around so more, to see where the money should actually be sent to ....

It was this point in my internet stalking that I came across a bitter online feud and the pointed use of the word "allegedly" to describe this too-good-to-be-true order. Someone said they had gone to see His Imperial Highness personally in Ethiopia, and the prince apparently didn't realize half of what had been going on in his imperial name. Bummer!

Well, I've often dreamed of visiting Ethiopia, so perhaps one day I will be able to call on the divine one himself, who, I am sure, has completely forgotten me. After all, he's had dynastic upheavals and revolutions to deal with. But if not that precise god, there's always James Earl Jones dressed as a giant bug, playing an Ethiopian Locust God in Exorcist II - The Heretic.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Well, at least now we know Dumbledore isn't Iranian


Ah, the revelation that shook the world, right up there with Watergate and President Clinton's disappearing cigar! And to think I was blithely sitting around composing operas when this epiphany seized the world's imagination! Well, although J.K. goes up in one's estimation for (a) the brilliant media savvy of dropping the right bombshell at the right time and (b) the nature of the bombshell itself ... I am a bit disappointed that this subtext was not made explicit enough for such unperspicacious literateurs as myself ... if *I* couldn't see it crystal-clearly ... there goes the chance of any sexually confused 11-year-old finding a decent role model....

Much of my news now comes through the distorting lens of Trisdee. He follows the news much more than I do these days. He told me not only about this, but about Mr. Ahmadinejad's dramatic announcement, also at some huge public do, also, paradoxically, in that fairyland we call New York, that there are no homosexuals in Iran. Makes you think, doesn't it? After all, the greatest glory of Persian literature is the ghazal, a kind of lyric love poetry from the mediaeval period, traditionally addressed to young men, especially cupbearers. (Oh, but there's no alcohol there either, I forgot.) These poems influenced the west: Goethe did a whole bunch of "remakes" in German, even retaining their sexually off-color content!

I know that Thomas Jefferson thought we should have a revolution every ten years, but I don't think he meant we had to sweep away all the great art and culture of the past! We can only learn from the past if we know what the past contains. Historical revisionism is always a disaster — for a country, for a society, and for the individual.

But, as I said in my last post, our self-appointed "advanced civilization" shouldn't be so smug. I read in some magazine that Ken Burns made his WWII documentary because he discovered that 90% of American kids he talked to thought the U.S. and Germany were allies in WWII against the Russians. I myself have asked a dozen kids here in Thailand if they knew whether Thailand won or lost the Second World War. None of them got the right answer.

But as for Dumbledore ... actually, it's a good thing J.K. didn't tell the reader, or the screenwriters, in advance. Especially the latter. They might have started writing in "stereotypical" behavior for our favorite wizard queen.

Now, here's the thing. At some stage, I'm going to have to give a speech in New York. Haven't done it for years; gave one at the Asia Society in the 1970s, gave a few talks at science fiction conventions, I think I even spoke at a CUSFS (the Columbia University Science Fiction Society) meeting once ... 25 years ago or more! But after Rowling and Ahmadinejad's dramatic pronouncements, what bombshell is there left to drop?

I know. I'll tell them I'm actually Jane Austen.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Why we shouldn't be smug about "Kite Runner"


I recently stumbled upon a blogger's review of Moon Dance, one of my most popular books. It's a book that took six years to write and of which one Amazon reviewer said: One hundred years from now, this will probably be regarded as THE werewolf novel, the one by which all others will be judged. A classic on a par with "Dracula" or "Frankenstein", but far deeper and darker than anything a celebrated 19th century "horror" writer could have spawned. It's won all sorts of awards and things, but this blog isn't really particularly about blowing my own horn. Let me tell you what Mr Martes says on his blog:

Descriptions of pretty much every deviant sex act, lots of bodily waste and urination, misogyny, anti-white racism, young boys, you name it. This is the type of book that makes you want to wash your eyes out with soap after reading it, written by a guy who's not afraid to wear his kinks on his sleeve. I've read my share of dirty books, and this book is more vomit-inducing than titilating.

What I'd like to talk about is this interesting clause: a guy who's not afraid to wear his kinks on his sleeve. Because I think it points out an interesting problem that every writer has from time to time: the confusion that many readers have between fiction and reality.

My friend, the tenor Todd Geer, told me that when he does the role of Pinkerton in the United States, audiences boo at the end because in Madama Butterfly, Pinkerton is such a cad. Todd, however, isn't a cad. Why should he get booed? He must have done a brilliant job, to convince all those sophisticated opera goers that he actually is that two-timing S.O.B.

Moon Dance is a historical novel set in a time of hideous atrocities and staggering beauty. It's also about werewolves, and once I had decided my werewolves were going to really be wolves, and started studying how wolves behave in the wild, I realized these human-seeming creatures would have to go around marking their territory, sniffing each other's butts, and generally exhibiting canine social behaviors. However, I am not, myself, a werewolf. It's also a Victorian novel, set in a time where there was a huge gulf between publicly avowed morality and people's real behavior, where a proper woman might faint at the immorality of an exposed chairleg while her husband cheerfully copulated with ten year old prostitutes in alleys. However, I have neither fainted at a chairleg nor pursued jailbait in alleys. A woman friend of mine who read this book appeared on a panel at a science fiction convention, and told an enthralled crowd that a sex scene written from a female point of view in this novel had been so accurately visualized that she, a woman, had been able to use it as material for ... but I digress. Despite this, I have never actually been a woman. An acquaintance who used to have multiple personality disorder and who had successfully integrated her personalities with the help of her shrink told me that she was truly able to identify with the multiple personality kid who is a major character in the book and that I had managed to figure out "what it really feels like." I am not, however, a multiple personality.

There's a lot of kinky sex and excruciating violence in the book, but in the end, its subject is compassion and healing. Most readers figure this out, but not all; the book makes a lot of demands.

Reading this review, in which the reader had confused me with the characters in the book, made me feel a lot less complacent about the recent Kite Runner flap.

I read the book years ago, found it very moving, was excited to know that a film is about to be released. Then I saw in the news that certain, ah, unsophisticated Afghanis might think the movie was real. That the actors who so tellingly portrayed these fictional characters might be in real physical danger because of the cultural undertones of what happened to them in the film. All the news reports have been, I suppose, a little bemused that people in this day and age can mistake fiction for reality. There's been a lot of talk about how backward these benighted folks must be to actually believe a movie.

We "sivilized" types think we know better. But do we? And in fact, shouldn't a work of art draw us in so much that we do in fact believe? Shouldn't we be a little envious of those for whom the magic of storytelling is still magic? Can't we still believe in transubstantiation despite the law of conservation of matter?

I realize now that Mr Martes' reaction to my book isn't that far removed from the reaction of our Pashtun friend who may never have seen a movie before. He too thinks it is real and ... in the final analysis ... I have to take his ad hominem interpretation of my book as a kind of compliment. Like the booing of Mr. Geer.

A work of art, you see, has an existence quite independent of its creator. And when you look into such a work, it is always a mirror. It always yourself that you see in it ... not the author of the work. My lady friend, my multiple personality friend, and many others saw something of their own selves in my book. And they weren't ashamed of the self that they saw. But perhaps the self that Mr. Martes saw reflected in my book was a much darker one than he dared to admit to himself. For all his protestations, Mr. Martes insists that he read the book from cover to cover, leading me to suspect that he may have enjoyed some its "dirty bits" even though he may have hated himself in the morning. Perhaps he always had such fantasies of kinky sex and violence, but as long as he never saw them written out, he would never have to confront them. And perhaps if he did confront them, he could have more compassion for himself, and could even start to heal.

Of course, now I am psychoanalyzing this person I've never met, but as we say in kindergarten, He started it.

In my life I've had the privilege of meeting pretty much every living horror writer, from Stephen King to Dean Koontz to Ramsey Campbell and so on. Many, like the late Robert Bloch, became very close friends. And I will say this about horror writers: as a group, they are the sanest, happiest, least screwed-up humans I know. I think it's because they spend a lot of time in front of that mirror, and they've stared their way through all the dark parts, and they've seen at least a glimmer of light on the other side.

The Top of the Greasy Pole


Yes! I finally have the highest position among all my Zombie companions on Facebook! Indeed, today I was elevated to the rank of Stealth Zombie, and am therefore the Highest Zombie yet known unto Myself. And yet ... what is this quintessence of dust?

On a more serious note, I was a guest at the annual SEA Write Awards a couple of days ago. This is only my second visit to the awards, and the first time where I didn't actually have to do anything, because last year I gave this rather provocative speech there. One only is allowed to give such a speech once in one's life, but at least I've done one thing James Michener and Gore Vidal have done, that is speak at SEA Write.

The occasion was a bit odd. The guest speaker was Sarah Bradford, The Viscountess Bangor, author of monumentally successful biographies, mostly of major female figures from Lucretia Borgia to Princess Diana (and a male or two like George VI). She spoke very well and told many interesting anecdotes (those who have watched CNN might have heard some of them before, but I certainly had not.) And yet, Lady Bangor did say something at the very beginning which gave me pause; she said she had prepared some remarks about the nature of fiction and biography, and that the organizers had instead asked her to do "the Diana thing." It made me think that I missed a very penetrating "other speech" which, in some alternate universe, she might have given. After all, we're talking about one of the world's leading biographers, and she probably had great secrets to impart to other writers. As all such award dinners are, the sublime and the ridiculous walked arm-in-arm all night. Legendary hotelier Kurt Wachtveil's revelations about the Wales's sex lives whilst staying at the Oriental proved to be the funniest moment of the evening.

Well, I invited the couple to dinner the next night, but didn't ask for any trade secrets, because I'm sure that no celebrity wants to talk shop at dinner. It was a wild party. Others present included my distant cousin Ing K, a notorious banned filmmaker, and her partner Manit who that very night was on TV inveighing against right-wing censorship, David "Producer of Alien" Giler, who is one of Bangkok's fixtures now, the women's writers group leader Anette Pollner, the New Zealand Ambassador, and so on. Trisdee played the Goldberg Variations and alternated them with selections from Elton John. Enormous quantities of drinks were downed and a rousing chorus of Tom Lehrer songs finished the evening.

Many remarked that since the 18th Century, it has probably been a rare occurrence to go to a party and someone's house and hear the entire Goldberg played live while quaffing a gin and tonic.

The next morning, I had lunch with a possible new owner for the film rights to Jasmine Nights (after 1o years, I'm still surviving on that book's option income....)

And the NEXT day, I was being videotaped for an interview with Tom Mintier which spilled past the thirty minute and into a second "evening".... That will be broadcast next week ....

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Meanwhile, in Another Universe....


"They know better than to bother us," said Somtow. He was kneeling behind her. She felt his tongue, tracing a line up the inside of her thigh. "In any case," he said after a moment, "you would not really mind if they were watching, would you?" He lingered in the crease where her thigh swelled into the fullness of her buttocks. Katherine let out an involuntary sigh, and opened her legs a little wider. ...

No, guys, I didn't write this. Amusingly enough, there's an erotic novelist writing under the name Lisabet Sarai who has named a character Somtow. We have sent emails back and forth before. She's a nice person. My own sex life, however, is much duller than this namesake's.

If you want to read the exploits of my alter ego, you had better go here:

http://totalebound.blogspot.com/2007/10/essence-of-romance.html

Not that Somtow's World is prudish, but to reveal more might violate the "fair use" provisions of international copyright law....

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Mayan Death-God goes French


The Laughing Dead
Uploaded by HansPfaall

I found this while randomly surfing the web. It appears to be a scene from my old 1989 horror film, The Laughing Dead, dubbed in French. I think it's better in French....


Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Identities....


I suppose it would make sense that since today is my day to go to the hospital, and I happen to have some kind of sleep disorder, that I'd have a pretty bad night beforehand. So, last night I have an identity crisis dream. I'm flying home to Los Angeles (after all this time in Bangkok), accompanied by one of my students and his mother, for some unfathomable reason.

We get to LAX and I'm panicstricken to discover that I've lost my American passport. I find myself trying to get into the country through the baggage chute, which is a high rollercoaster-like thing, and I'm perched at the top clinging onto the railings while the conveyor belt barrels on down carrying all in its wake....

So, after the usual wake-up-screaming-can't-breathe routine, in my next dream I have apparently murdered the Cornflake King. It's a mafioso setting for this one. Taiwanese gangsters are involved, and I'm in a coffee shop wildly confessing, only no one believes me.

So, I go and see my cardiologist, and he says I'm really fine, but my condition has deteriorated since Butterfly, when, apparently, it was pretty good, perhaps because of the hours and hours of conducting were causing me to lose weight and sleep properly. Now I'm back to brooding and stressing. Stop with the admin already, Dr. Nithi has told me. Believe me, I am working on it!

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Never Enough Fame


As if my recent "coronation" at the iTunes store were not enough ... you may recall they now have me down as one of the 25 "non-Western" classical composers no collection can be without ... the inimitable Peter Young has elevated this humble blogger to another High Honour: selected the photo you see above to be an upcoming "Science Fiction Picture of the Day" (sfpod.blogspot.com).

What more can a Two-Time Hugo Loser hope to gain in life?

Friday, September 28, 2007

Prisoners of the Air


When one is in the airport in Thailand, one is often faced with the dilemma of what to read on whatever flight one is about to take. Suvarnabhumi Airport's bookstores are particularly unexciting, but even at the old Don Muang the choice was pretty stupefying. But I fly out of Bangkok so frequently now that I have been forced to read much that I would never normally read. One of the genres that is most powerfully represented at the Bangkok airports is the "I was an Inmate of Thailand's Mediaeval Prison System" genre. There is always a large selection of titles in this genre on display at the airport. Occasionally, there are even copies of the same book with different titles, presumably to tempt you into reading the same book on your next flight because presumably you have completely forgotten it the first time round.

Because I find the genre of the seedy old caucasian among the girls of Patpong to be an even less entertaining choice of reading material, I have found myself being forced to read a number of these prison books and I have found them to fall into a very pat formula. First the ingenuous farang commits some crime such as drug smuggling, little realizing that he might get caught. He is then sentenced to some gargantuan prison sentence, where he is beaten, sent to the hole, raped, eats cockroaches, and so on, for a while. At some point, he learns the meaning of life. Finally, either through a royal amnesty, or through various efforts on the home front, he returns to his home country, swearing to write a book so that everyone will know better than to strap that pound of heroin to his corset on his way out of the land of smiles. (There's even one about a white woman in a Lao prison.)

They're actually quite enjoyable, these books; they follow a certain redemptive formula that delivers a satisfying ending in spite of being almost uniformly atrociously written. Mostly, they give a rather bad impression of Thailand, which is why their airport ubiquity surprises me a bit. One of the ones I read last year had the prisoner serve the rest of his sentence back home in England ... and this author's conclusion was that a Thai jail was a lot more fun, even with the beatings and cockroach curries!

So I was somewhat surprised to find, this evening, on my way to Singapore to interview some valkyries, a new book being displayed ... something called "Inside", all about the hideousness of American prisons! And having spent two hours on Jetstar flight 3K514 in the company of the denizens of America's finest penitentiaries, I must conclude that we in Thailand have a lot to learn from the First World about cruelty, dehumanization, and anal intercourse, not to mention how to conceal weapons in tubes of toothpaste and hide them in ones rectal passage. Luckily, Jetstar doesn't serve food (unless you pay) so when my gorge rose, the contents of my stomach were too slight for a reenactment of The Exorcist.

I can usually finish an entire book on the Bangkok-Singapore trip (it's about 2 1/2 hours, as long as Das Rheingold) but the pilot got there 20 minutes early, so luckily I don't actually have to finish this one.

Tomorrow, I'll report on my meeting with three Chinese Valkyries. That's why I popped down to Singapore today, to hand them their music.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Singapore Slang


So, tonight, I finally saw this play which has the improbable title of "The Campaign to Confer the Public Service Star on JBJ". I don't know if it was a good idea to sleep through (and therefore miss) the opening night ... but tonight had the added bonus of being the director's birthday, so Trisdee and I managed to get in, somehow, on the champagne and cake after the show.

Eleanor Wong's play is simply one of the best new plays I've seen in a decade. I'm just in awe of this woman's command of her craft.

It's, I suppose, a sort of political satire. Structurally, it's almost an identical twin of Joe Di Stefano's screenplay for Pyscho, indeed it's the only theatrical work I know of that has this structure. But of course it's all put to a completely different use. In fact, only a collector of paradigms such as myself could ever leap to such a bizarre connection, but amazingly, the paradigm fits.

By the Psycho structure, I mean that the person set up as the protagonist, and with whom all our sympathy is engaged, gets shockingly killed off at the exact midpoint in the play, and the second half introduces a completely different central character who spends the second hour unravelling the mystery of what happened in the first act. It's a daring conceit. It shouldn't come off, but improbably, it works brilliantly. The first half, played for laughs, deceives us completely; in the second half, the laughs come just as thick and fast, but because the hero has been killed in the first act, we aren't so easily deceived; indeed, we are quickly drawn into a labyrinth of paranoia and suspicion which has all been elegantly set up in the first half.

Lots of things were impressive ... the fact that two people played a dozen roles, in a bewildering array of accents, age groups, and personality types ... Brian Tan's very cunning little cinema montages between each scene ... (I met this Brian guy at the party afterwards, and I thought he was some 15 year old kid, was startled to see him drinking ... boy did I feel stupid when he said to me, "Actually, I'm very old" … you cannot tell with Asians, even if you are one yourself!)

But what particularly engages my attention is that this play which starts as a joke and escalates into a searing indictment of the Singapore government's Machiavellian cynicism, callousness and venality, has been produced in a country which, in theory, is far more repressive than Thailand … funded in part by the very government it chillingly satirizes.

As everyone (who is anyone, at least!) knows, I had my own brush with the censors last year. But this was nothing like a formalized censorship system; it seems to have been a haphazard thing, perhaps even a personal vendetta, and despite the various threats, I was not dragged off to the Gulag in the middle of the premiere. I wrote a highly public letter of protest to the prime minister, and no one hauled me off to a firing squad.

And yet, I don't think a play such as the one I just saw would be put on in Thailand, paid for with public money, and performed in a national cultural institution. Thailand has had numerous scandals, sweepings under carpets, corruption within corruption scenarios and whatnot, but we don't wash our laundry in public with the obvious glee that these Singaporeans are now doing. They are just having a great time pointing out their own foibles and at the same time not having some huge complex about having foibles ... and this seems to be the one thing that Thai society doesn't yet do well ... this ironic detachment thing. There's still too much terror of looking like a fool. But we are all fools. That's the human condition, isn't it?

So, Ivan Heng and I will definitely do an opera together, and it will be High Camp. I will not reveal the subject until it is set in stone but I guarantee that my science fiction readers are going to cream.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

One Fine Day Indeed



Oh, and here's the "Un bel di" clip from our production of "Madama Butterfly"

Dreaming with a Forked Tongue

I'm in Singapore and I completely slept through the play I came to see. Not exactly the fault of Ivan Heng, my favorite Singapore director; it was not the play itself that put me to sleep, rather my own insane schedule and bizarre sleep deprived lifestyle. You see, in order to catch the early morning flight, I thought I'd just stay up an hour or two longer than usual, get to Singapore, take a brief nap then go to the theatre. The beds at the Hilton must be extra comfortable, because I didn't wake up until the play was over, and found a rude note from SISTIC (the Singaporean equivalent of Ticketmaster) informing me that I couldn't get my money back.

Well, the play is completely sold out (it's a Singaporean political satire) but, as it happens, I do know the director, so UNLESS I happen to fall asleep again, I think I shall get to see the play this evening....

But I digress. Having slept a lot, and at odd times, I have a peculiar dream to add to my dream diary. I woke up today from a very strange dream indeed. It was set in an idyllic country landscape, perhaps New England, lush, with lovely country roads. I was making a film or something because there was a set, but I had decided to take a little time off, and I was driving around. The roads formed a series of very big squares (almost as though they were created in a program like SIM CITY) and for some reason I decided to make a left turn that was earlier than my destination.

The reason is that I saw some Iroquois warriors standing by the road and I slowed down to look at them.

When I turned I was in an Indian village and a man with long hair, very much like someone you might run into in the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, came up to my car. He wore a blue denim shirt and had a headband. He had a young daughter. He said to me that he was going to be my guide.

It was a village of thatched houses, more like some African kraal than a village in the plains states.

My guide began speaking to me in Lakota. I was surprised because I had thought this was going to be a Mohawk or Iroquois village (the warrior I had seen from the road was definitely NOT a Plains Indian.) I knew it was Lakota because I can understand a lot of Lakota words and though I didn't grasp the sentences, I could pick out words like "oyate kin" (the people) and "akichita" (warrior) and so on. The girl said, in English, "I will be your translator. He is going to show you around the village."

But the first house we come to is more like something in colonial Williamsburg or rural Pennsylvania. There's a regular concrete pavement next to it. I go in and see typical Americana: quiltwork, a dark wood rocking chair, and so on. The guide explains things and the girl translates.

I say to her (thinking on the Iroquois brave I saw earlier) "I didn't think you people were Lakota."

"Well actually, we're not," she tells me. "We're English."

"That's funny," I said. "So am I."

And then I wake up....

***

What does this tell me about my identity crisis? I wasn't English last time I looked. But, according to my mother, when I was two, I used to think I was English. I used to say to people in my piping little voice: "I'm English — you — foreigner!"

***

Monday, September 10, 2007

Reviews?


Two reviews in the local paper of Butterfly so far. Night and day. One of them, very knowledgeable, accurate, insightful, perhaps expecting a bit too much, but not unfair; the other a huge rave which of course I love, but perhaps a bit over the top ... it was once the case that whenever I performed here, the review, if there was one at all, was mostly about what some Khunying was wearing, but it must now be said, I think, that for the first time in many years there are reviewers who know what they're talking about. Or at least have a vague idea. At least they're not only talking about the size of khunying so and so's pearls.

All the "wannabes" must be quaking in their boots.

Now, I am in Singapore, having paid big bucks to get the best seats for the opening night of Ivan Heng's new play. Horribly enough, I had to stay up all night to catch the morning flight to SIngapore. So when I got to the Hilton I decided to take a little nap ... and missed the play! Oh well, I will go tomorrow. I know that opening nights are always full of glitches. I know this from experience ... don't we all?

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Yes! Canonized by iTunes!


Awards are all very well ... even the notoriety of having the Thai authories attempt to censor me is all very well ... but let's face it, real fame only comes from iTunes.

Which is why I was jolly pleased to discover that the iTunes shop has put a series of albums called "Essentials" ... collections of pieces considered vital to an understanding of every genre. The collections come in four sections: "The basics", which is 25 pieces of music you absolutely MUST have; and then there's "next step", an unjustly neglected section, and so on. So one of the essentials collections is called "Classical World" ... the non-Eurocentric classical music collection. And right there, in "the basics" along with people I have heard of, like Ravi Shankar, Takemitsu, et al, there's an aria from "Madana," an opera composed by "Modesty Prevents Me." So it seems that iTunes has magically determined I'm one of the 25 must-have "world classical" composers.

Of course, no one in Thailand will ever be aware of this because the iTunes store, the world's bestselling source of digital music and so on ... is inaccessible to people with Thai addresses. Too much credit card fraud or something. It's only because my credit card is on my L.A. address that I happened to run into this ... so once again, absolutely no impact on my Life as a Dog.

Perhaps I should add that during the Thailand ban on Youtube, which lasted 3 or 4 months, the Bangkok Opera's Youtube channel was visited almost 400,000 times. Not, of course, by any of the law-abiding Thai citizens who wouldn't dream of flouting a ban from our beloved military authorities ... so, it must have been those pesky foreigners ... when will they ever learn ... oh, whoops, I forgot, I'm a pesky foreigner myself ... where did I hide that U.S. passport? Better not tell iTunes or I'll be kicked off the "essential non-Western western music composer" list.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Spinning Ball of Our Existence


The spinning ball of death is a feature of the Mac ... though perhaps not one that Apple publicizes too much. It comes up when something is wrong. It spins and spins and drives you to the brink of madness. You can do nothing. It is a metaphor for the futility of our existence, and for the world itself (because as it spins and spins it becomes your whole world) and in general it is the most frustrating thing in the universe, especially as it seems that I will now have to spend at least a WEEK moving files by hand from one computer to another. Unfortunately, my Angel of OS X, Ryan Stern, is about 12,000 miles away right now, so I shall have to try to deal with this alone.

I do have a wonderful new computer. It's just that I'm migrating the data from a self-destructing hard drive, the equivalent of transferring cargo from a sinking frigate to a huge modern liner with only a leaky rowboat to ferry me forth between the two. (My nautical similes have never been accurate ... in fact, the last time I was on a boat was in 1983, and I puked over the side ... on the way to Tiberius's enchanted grotto on Capri....)

When the horror is all over, I shall be able to do splendid things. But not today.

I hope you are enjoying the couple of preview clips of the "Butterfly" video that I have been posting. There won't be any more until the computer troubles are over.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Sneak Preview of the Bangkok Butterfly video

"Madama Butterfly" - Love Duet from Bangkok

Israel Lozano and Nancy Yuen in this (unedited, sound not yet fixed, etc.) excerpt from the Bangkok Opera's rather sizzling "Butterfly" last week...

Sound distorts and isn't mixed, but I wanted to share a glimpse of this production with those who couldn't be there ...

Want to share a letter from a normally very discriminating and picky operagoer....

Your production of Butterfly was exquisite. I've seen it at the Met
and at Covent Garden with far grander productions and, honestly, I found
this much more touching and beautiful.

What was so extraordinary was the simple, spare perfection of every
aspect. The production design was stunning, from the set itself, to
the inspired idea of the calligraphy, which I thought a series of
small masterpieces. The arrival on this minimal canvas of the maximal
chorus of spectacular kimonos, I almost cheered.

The end of Act 2 and the beginning of Act 3, of course is always an
art director's showpiece, always my favorite part of the opera,
musically, but I can't remember seeing it more evocatively,
impressionistically done, incredibly emotional in its muted way,
musically and visually.

The acting - always the veeeery weakest link in any opera - was
brilliant, actually convincing! Suzuki masterly, Sharpless peerless,
and the general blocking of the cast an extremely clever and
constantly inventive use of a perfectly lovely set. The dutch scrim, I
see, is working overtime.

The orchestra, you're right, must be kept together. You led it
beautifully, restrainedly. And the tenor - I forget his name - is
quite some find, no? An unsympathetic role made almost heroic by -
again - terrific acting, even more important, terrific INTERacting and
REacting. The stage direction really was superb all around.

I guess it's too much to hope that this creative team can be kept
together, but stage direction and production design of this level of
taste, understanding and interweaving is almost unique.

Many congratulations for putting it all and keeping it all together.

Well, I am trying to edit together a video from the two performances. More news on that soon.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Return of the Nightmares


Another post-Butterfly day has passed. It's taking a while to return to normal after what seems according to most people to have been a major triumph. Last night, my breathing problems seem to have come back in a big way, and I woke up three times, each time with a different nightmare lingering in the memory. Two of these dreams involved science fiction personalities with whom I haven't spoken in a decade: in one of them, I was frantically editing a novella by Beth Meacham (who was actually my editor back in the 80s) while in another, Harlan Ellison was trying to force-feed me a Caesar salad that was covered in huge mounds of extremely dry garlic.

Although it is true that I am turning back to SF, having just rejoined the SFWA and having originally planned to go to the worldcon in Tokyo (it didn't work out because Butterfly simply wore me out) ... I don't know why these two science fictional eminences would suddenly appear in my dreams ...

The other nightmare is perhaps more comprehensible. I enter a wooden room. It's a house on stilts, a big rectangular room with a side entry to some kind of covered veranda or music room (this is I think, the exact same house as in my dream of 25 years ago about the woman in red and the ape, but more of that later). As in that previous dream, I have escaped from something and I'm hiding in the house. Carefully I seal off the veranda room and lock the front doors. The back is a sliding glass door, or a French door, that overlooks some kind of jungle or dense foliage sort of landscape. Ascertaining that I am perfectly safe, I sit back on the sofa. Suddenly, a huge, feather-headband-sporting native American bursts through the glass door -- which has never been closed at all -- brandishing a weapon which is a huge staff made of green sugar cane (or bamboo!) So, this creature chases me to the bed, wildly waving the sugar cane.

I fall back and I look up. This seems to be the bottom bunk of a double-bunker, one of those big wooden ones with a loft bed on top (or maybe the bottom is the sofa) ... but the thing is there is a big, shaggy brown teddy bear attached (maybe nailed) to the planks of the upper bunk, so it's hanging above me, and the teddy bear turns around and it's only got one eye (or one button where an eye should be...)

Is this scary or what?

Now this week, I have to turn my thoughts to my own physical survival, having let myself get torn apart a bit over the opera. But the odd thing is, I didn't really feel sick during the opera, even with occasionally conducting for nine hours. Maybe I don't really need to be attached to breathing machines ... I just need to be working on real creative stuff ... who knows?

However, there won't be much opera this month. For one thing, I've a soundtrack and a trilogy to write and for another, I am giving my first ever piano recital in my life since being thoroughly beaten by Jeremy Menuhin in a piano competition when I was 13. (His fingers moved so fast, they literally blurred.) What am I playing in the recital? The entire recital will consist of music by John Cage. Yes, I'm even playing the 4'33" of silence ... and I'm gonng play that piece from the music, so everyone will know I'm not cheating. I bought the score. It cost me $9.95 and consists entirely of the instructions....

More on this, and other matters, after I figure out why I can't get to sleep anymore....

Thursday, August 30, 2007

OMG Opening Night....



It's the day after the opening night of "Madama Butterfly" and I'm theoretically resting up between days (the next performance is tomorrow). Instead, I …

***
Okay, now it's the day after the last performance. You can see that I didn't actually rest up. When no blog appears for a while, it's because the day ran out of hours before I could get to the computer.

It will take some time for the dust to settle on this Butterfly but it must first be said that it was an unprecedented success. The cast outdid themselves, the orchestra more than made it through, and many people did heroic things ... for instance, chorus master Dominic supplying birdsong at the last minute, Meilan Henderson rushing to the rescue with a skirt for the leading lady, and so on. There was bitterness and laughter. And there was a sense that the Bangkok Opera, which has been through a lot of horror lately, from anonymous chain letters to bizarre censorship scandals through my illness and so on ... has in fact crossed a new threshold. The presence of the Minister of Science on the opening night and the Minister of Tourism and Sport on the closing night was quite exciting.

I think that Israel Lozano, our great new Spanish tenor discovery is already breaking Thai hearts. This is such a great cast that I already signed them for La Boheme next year. Only I don't have a date yet ...

Oh, so many stories. Take the wardrobe department. Colin Morris's trousers ... Henry Akina's shorts .... Nancy Yuen's skirt ... come to think of it, are all the stories about people's nether garments? Interesting.

Right now, I'm too tired to say much more. It's been exhilarating ... and indeed exasperating. In the end, pretty much everyone came through ... whew!

Video will be up soon!!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Butterflies in my Stomach


I haven't blogged for a week and the reason is really quite simple: I have to conduct from 10 am to 9 pm, and after that I have to little things like chase funding, lay out program books, and such like. So, there's no time left. Not even enough time to dream, which means I can't tell you about those.

Now, I do have a spiffy new baton, brought to me by the intrepid Dominic Sargent. And I'm feeling very inspired this week. I get a lot of posts on my Facebook wall ... "How is Butterfly going? I haven't heard anything...." The answer is, this is the first production I've done in a long time that doesn't feel, artistically, like a nightmare. I'm working with a dream cast. There is an amazing atmosphere of family. Everyone's easy to work with and when the usual disasters strike, there aren't any wild tantrums (at least not so far). And the orchestra, after all the hideous politics of Bangkok's music scene, is a miracle — these are young people who are eager to learn and who are so intensely musical that they have no trouble charging through Puccini's constantly shifting rubato.

Now, the performance is in 3 days, so we will simply have to see.....

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Hand of Glory


In Tarot, the "Death" card also means "Rebirth." In Thai popular belief, dreaming of the dead brings wealth and fortune.

So, as I prepared for the first orchestral rehearsal of "Madame Butterfly" I wondered what the Fates were telling me. You see, I couldn't find my baton. ANYWHERE. And my driver suddenly revealed to me that it has not been seen since The Rape of Lucretia.

Now, this is a magic baton. It was given to me by one of my very very best friends, Deborah Geithner, in 1977. She bought it in New York and my career in opera began with it when I conducted the Bangkok Opera Society (now subsumed into the BMS) in a performance of Amahl and the Night Visitors. Legendary, because the Diva, known to some of the kids in the cast by the unkind (but accurate) sobriquet of La Pachyderma, had a hissy and stalked off the stage 15 minutes before the premiere, and because I was punched out by someone's driver because Thai elements had been infused into the story (it was staged in a Thai village). The driver was unhappy with the cultural pollution. Alas, I had nothing to do with it. It was the director, Jane Kenney, who had decided on this clever notion, and her interpretation has colored the way I do opera even now, thirty years later.

Since then, I've never used any other baton even though part of it seems to have been chewed off by rats.

I kept this thing during my years of being completely burned out in music, hidden in a drawer or whatever. It miraculously resurfaced when I started doing music again. This chewed up thing has been featured, for instance, in the Mercedes Benz exhibit of "ten most precious things" ...

And then, if it is true that it disappeared right after Lucretia, it could be a sign. Rather like in Cavafy's poem "The God Abandons Antony" ... which I won't quote to you in Greek because I'm not sure how the font is going to translate cross-platform....

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear an invisible procession going by with exquisite music, voices, don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now, work gone wrong, your plans all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.

A sign that a thirty-year era of my existence has now drawn to a close. A sign (a la tarot) that something has died, and something must be reborn.

I went to the rehearsal, which I've been very stressed about. First, the orchestra leader I had in mind, who has just arrived in Thailand and has a very good resume, was suddenly forbidden by his boss from working on this show; so a mad scramble for another leader ensued, with a very good one being located in Taiwan, only, internet problems plagued communications (there's a typhoon raging there) and another great prospect, from Singapore, turned out to be definitely busy. My No. 2 violinist (I had not thought about making him leader because he has to miss three of the rehearsals) was put in first place and guess what? He was brilliant! Not only as a soloist, but as a very responsive leader.

Indeed, the orchestra surprised me and this was by far the best "first rehearsal" I've ever had. This was a mostly very young group and they picked up all the insane rubato of the Italian style really quickly. Yeah I waved my hands about wildly, having no baton. Someone in the orchestra said maybe I'll end up back in the hospital if I wave wildly enough. But we have a plan. The piccolo player, Mr. Marut, is going to perform CPR on stage while standby cameras whir into action, and the dramatic maestro rescue is going to be on CNN in that boring period around 3 am when nothing actually happens in the world.

So I come back from this rehearsal and I think, yes, truly, indeed, it's a new era in my existence. Then there's a note from Trisdee which says, "Your baton is on my desk." He is in Holland, so I haven't really been in his room.

I looked. It's not there. Trisdee is rarely wrong about these things, so perhaps it did in fact vanish by supernatural means, and perhaps, then, it actually is a sign.

But from whom?

Monday, August 13, 2007

Getting Off the Pot


So, there is a lot of death in my dreams, but oddly enough it's never the people one expects, and never my own. For instance, two days ago, I dreamed that the grandmother of a brilliant young string player in our orchestra (who shall remain anonymous, as I don't want to upset this person) was dead, and the entire dream was spent helping this musician cope with the grief.

This has been a long weekend here in Thailand. It's the Queen's birthday. Everyone is out of town, but for me it's been a weekend of unmitigated work, and not really the kind of work that I enjoy as it is mostly things like moving bits of type around in a photoshop document or writing stern emails berating my staff. I was so bummed out by the world in general that I decided to sign up for Second Life. There, I spent several hours adjusting my avatar into the perfect me: long, blue hair, very slender, attractive clothes, etc; then I went to the local opera house, where nothing of interest was playing. I also flew around.

When I landed, however, I was still the same person. I have not gone back to Second Life since, even though there's a huge article in Time magazine about how it's taking over the world.

Then I dreamed about the infamous Bob Halliday, who appears as a character in this book I'm writing now. In the book, he is one of the Five Rishis, who guard all knowledge. If you knew Bob, you would realize that this is a very accurate description. Anyway, in my dream, I am wandering around through this huge emporium of unwritten novels, unfinished works of art, and so on, which is a cluttered and inexhaustible treasury. I come across two unwritten books by Frank Kermode, called "The Sexuality of Greece" and "The Sexuality of Rome". The names of the books gradually appear on the spines as I bend down to examine them. As I move away, I suddenly trip and break a huge blue glazed pottery vessel. I wonder if I will ever put it back together again, as I awaken.

Now, although Frank Kermode did teach at Cambridge during my time there, he never taught me, nor does he have anything to do with sexual history books; Shakespeare's imagery is more his cup of tea. (I'm thinking it's a dream-pun and it's the word "commode" that it ACTUALLY refers to.) I break a pot, you see. Is the dream telling me simply to shit or get off the pot?

Had a deep and terrifying conversation with some members of the Bangkok Opera's inner circle tonight, sitting in the bar of the Polo Club (of which, appropriately enough, I am not a member) and wearing sandals (there is a sign forbidding sandals at the entrance.)

The conversation touched on an important subject: Is there life after opera? I'm going to go to sleep tonight meditating on this question, and when the answer comes, it may be a second life after all ... or even a third.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Dancing Class at Father Joe's

I just wanted to share these images. By the way, you remember the $9.50 someone was trying to charge for an old Somtow letter on ebay? I checked today. No one bid on it. I am safe from world fame, after all.




Dancing Class at Father Joe's

Posted Yesterday

This is a very touching clip. I was at a dancing lesson in Father Joe's home which houses many street kids. A lot of the kids in this video have HIV and even full blown AIDS. And yet their dancing is full of incredible joy.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Perspectives


I spent the evening at Father Joe's today and I met a whole lot of kids who have AIDS, and it sure put all my own problems in perspective.

There were these two boys who were 12 and 14 years old. I saw stacks of their paintings. These paintings are full of this incredible sense of joy. The colors are vibrant, the compositions imaginative, and they're full of images of happy people. So, Fr. Joe tells me these kids won't last more than another year or so. They LOOK like they're about 8 years old. Fr. Joe tells me their meds stunt their growth; they get frozen at a certain physical age. They look like angels.

Of course my first impulse is, "What do these kids need, how can we get them the things they want," and Fr. Joe says to me, "No. We have plenty of donations. Everyone gives us money. I'd rather you just came here and sat with the kids sometimes, watch TV with them, even take a nap here. They really need to have men around." (There's an abundance of house mothers, house aunts, etc.)

You see those sunflowers? That is a stunning painting. It has a sense of ecstasy. The flowers are alive, they're practically swaying. The kid is going to die and there is absolutely NOTHING I can do about it. Am I upset? You tell me.

I will go over there again soon and "take a nap." After all, you all know I am having trouble sleeping.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Awakening • The Womb of the Collective Unconscious


A dream of power just before waking: I'm conducting the Eroica Symphony. Oddly enough, though, the music is different. It ends in a bizarre rush of triplets, different from the actual ending.
***

Apart from writing a few trilogies and operas and conducting and designing the poster etc etc. I recently found the time to read the final Harry Potter book. It's pretty good, especially if you can sort of ignore J.K.'s various stylistic insensitivities. Indeed, the whole series, despite all the poopoos from literary detractors, works very well on its own terms. Whether it's a children's literary masterpiece or not, I don't know. Most such masterpieces -- the Alice books, Tolkien, C.S Lewis, Pullman, et al, are not this badly written. But a case could made that, for instance, "The Wizard of Oz" is. There is absolutely no denying the fact that the series has presented The Primal Myth of Western Civilization (the orphan who must learn who he really is, the ancient sage who guides and must die (yet continues to guide from beyond the grave), the unassailable fortress of darkness, the weapons that only the hero can wield, etc etc) in one incredibly accessible package. And I think that it works precisely because J.K. didn't reach for her Joseph Campbell or her Jung, but actually extracted the entire tale, whole and still bleeding, from the great womb of the collective unconscious. And that is a talent that many more "literate" writers ought to envy, because in a very real sense that is what it's actually all about.

Sometimes, though, I wish I hadn't read as many fantasy novels, anthropology books, and analyses of mythoses. Then the books wouldn't be so damned predictable. For all its hyped up hush-hush revelations, I have to confess that the last book didn't have a single surprise in it for me. But you know, I didn't mind that. We don't watch "Star Wars" to be amazed that Leia is Luke's sister -- we ought to already know that from our Wagner. We know that Dumbledore will die and yet still be around -- we've all seen "Star Wars." We enjoy these works in the same way that we enjoy a celebration of the mass: it's a re-creation of a ritual that goes all the way back to the time we lived in caves.

Despite the books' raw power, though, there's a part of me that says that execution still counts. Rowling's prose contains too many howlers for me to revisit it too often. I read the Alice books every year; how often will I read this bloated heptalogy? Still, I will hang on to my set. My children's children, and all that. If nothing else, it's evidence of an un-ignorable cultural phenomenon of the early 21st century. (I also have a complete set of Series I Garbage Pail Kids.) Pity I was too stupid to buy a first printing of No. 1.

Going to the lavatory will now feel like an empty, desolate experience without the next chapter of HP7 to look forward to. However, I've started a truly BRILLIANT children's book ... "The Neddiad", by Daniel Pinkwater. Now, THAT man is a genius. Every sentence is a little miracle.

***

And so, on to BUTTERFLY. The director, the very imaginative Henry Akina, has told me that he wants to tell this story from a Japanese viewpoint, using techniques of kabuki and such. This week we have been signing up ninjas.

No, they are not going to move silently through the audience assassinating my critics.

These are actually those people in black who are supposed to be "invisible" in kabuki and actually accomplish all the stage effects ... the moving of the screens, the magical opening of the fan, and so on.

Perhaps they can also move my baton while I stand there just thinking about the tempo.