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.)