Sunday, December 26, 2010

Somtow Encounters the Grinch

In almost half a century of giving performances in venues of every kind in most of the world's continents, I've never had quite as weird an experience as I did on Christmas Eve this year.

It all started a week or so earlier when Bruce Gaston, my fellow Silpathorn Kittikun Artist, called me and asked me if I'd send the Shounen-Thai quartet down to Phuket on Christmas Eve.  I didn't really want to do it because they were already signed up for Dr. Veena's TV special on Christmas Day in Bangkok, but Bruce was persuasive.  The event would be a glittering star-studded evening at the Amanpuri Resort.  The money would be respectable.  And this would by no means be an event demeaning to the Opera (we have a policy of not doing commercial functions, especially ones in which the audience are simultaneously eating or wandering around, because we work with real artists, not bar bands.  By the time the discussions were finished I had agreed to provide a 90 minute "Classical Christmas" programme with 2 opera singers, Trisdee on piano, myself, and the quartet as well.  In particular, we were asked to do Christmas music in a classical vein, so I spent a great deal of time obtaining arrangements for string quartet of popular Christmas songs.  My two singers were the best ones I could find in Thailand on short notice: Zion Daoratanahong, who recently was chosen to sing the special televised dedication song for the King's birthday, and Stefan Sanchez, who is staying on for a while in Thailand after his well-received performance in CARMEN.

It was a stroke of luck to have Trisdee in the group ... just back from conducting the RAI National Orchestra of Italy, and about to go off to conduct the Verdi Orchestra of Milan in the near future ... by far the best known Thai conductor internationally (Sorry, Mr. Bundit.)

So this gig, which we took on basically to help out Bruce Gaston, was a bit of nuisance, but we took it seriously, trying to fill the "Classical Christmas" agenda with a nicely constructed and varied programme.  Everything was thoroughly rehearsed before we left and we were assured that the Amanpuri, a well known hangout for millionaires, would have the whole thing smoothly and beautifully organized.

We arrived in Phuket around 3 pm and were driven to the Amanpuri.  On arrival, we were met by some kind of assistant F&B person and it became painfully obvious that all was not as we had been told.  "We will now send you off you check in to your hotel.  Be back by 6 for a sound check, and your show begins around 8:30 or 9.  You must play until 11:30."

I wasn't too suprised they were putting us up elsewhere, but rather irritated to discover that the place was an hour away.  From 4-6, with travel in both directions, that would have allowed precisely zero rest time, after which we were expected to be on call for almost six hours.  There was not even going to be a room provided for us to rest, and the concert was an open air one, next to the ocean.  I offered to check into the resort (at $852 a night) at my own expense; I was doing the gig as a favor, not to make money. so I didn't really care.  The F&B scoffed, behaving as though I were a presumptuous insect for daring to imagine that "the entertainment" might be accommodated with their great and powerful clients. That was when I started to get a bad feeling about this.

In the car, travelling to the hotel they had booked for us, we discussed our options.  It was clear right away that the Amanpuri had no clue who any of us were.  If it hadn't been for Bruce Gaston, I would have simply gone home.  I don't need this.

Stefan Sanchez then pointed out that, if he were not doing this gig as a favor to me, he would have already had a tantrum and refused to perform.   After all, it's been about two centuries since the time that renowned artists had to wear livery and expected to be treated like servants.  The Bangkok Opera, which is a pauper compared to the Amanpuri, never treats its artists in such a shabby manner.  When Zion was invited to perform at the King's birthday event in Sanamluang, she had a an earlier engagement the same night singing in one of my concerts ... and the ministry actually had her delivered to their concert in style, by motorcycle escort.  I have never given any performance in any hotel or resort where they did not provide a complimentary room (the Oriental gave me a huge suite and free run of room service including all the dinner guests I wanted.)

But it was not so much that the accommodation was insulting.  It was the idea that hard working artists who take their craft seriously and who had just flown in that afternoon would be fine to perform for twice the amount of time specified without having any rest after flying in and being bused from place to place for what would by then have amounted to three hours.

As we suspected, the hotel we were sent to was an incredible dump.  But by then we needed the rest and could ignore the fleas.  Calling the F&B person elicited no response, so I talked to Bruce and explained the situation.  I told him the artists were mutinying.  We had a beautiful 90 minute programme prepared, not a 150 minute one.  Whatever happened, we would be insisting on taking our rest now,  and still arrive in plenty of time to perform.  We also asked Bruce to tell the Amanpuri we wouldn't play unless they gave us the cheque upfront.  This is because Stefan, by far the most experienced among us with "hotel dealings", was having strange vibes about the whole thing.

Bruce called the F&B people and got them to agree to the upfront cheque and the time constraints.  So, on balance, we decided we would just not worry about the demeaning treatment and do the best we could, put on the finest "Classical Christmas" we were capable of, and then go home and try to forget about it.

We had been told that the "brilliant sound people" would have everything ready and a sound check wasn't even necessary, but on our arrival at the venue, we discovered that there were no music stands, no light by which the musicians could see the music, and the "piano" was an electronic device set at a height where Trisdee would have to stand to play it.  It was clear that these people had not the slightest clue about how to set up for classical music.  But okay, we sorted all that out, and after a lot of hemming and hawing we were also able to extract Bruce Gaston's cheque from them, although they started by saying that they weren't aware that they were supposed to come up with this cheque.

The "audience" consisted of people wandering around at a rather upscale buffet.  Well, never mind.  We began.  Zion sang a lovely rendition of "O Holy night" with a heart-stopping top B flat at the end and got a nice round of applause.  It seemed that the music itself would at least be okay.

The string quartet played a bit of Mozart.  More applause.  Then they launched into Jingle Bells and all hell broke loose.

First, the assistant F&B manager descended on the quartet.  He said, "No Christmas music!  The boss's orders!"

Well, considering that the programme we have painstakingly worked up consisted almost entirely of Christmas music, this was going to be a tall order.

Nevertheless, we got in a huddle and next we despatched Stefan to sing the "Toreador Song" from CARMEN.  He had just after all done the role to enormous acclaim in Bangkok, and you can never go wrong with this song.

Except at the Amanpuri, rated the world's No. 1 Spa, where a blonde, perhaps German, woman, who was Mr. Assistant F&B's boss, now asked us whether, as well not playing any Christmas songs, we could also avoid playing anything classical.

I called Bruce.  "It's worse," I said.  I explained the latest developments.

He said, "Well, they knew they were getting opera singers and a classical quartet ... and they knew it was Christmas music."

I said, "Well, I guess getting the cheque upfront was the right thing to do."

At that moment, it began to rain.  It looked like providence was going to get us out of this tough spot.  Well, the F&B people immediately suggested that we might as well leave.  "We'll worry about the details later," they said.   One of them said to Trisdee, "It would be better if I wasn't seen talking to you."  They couldn't wait to get rid of us.  It was clear they were all very nervous and that heads were about to roll.

As the van left the premises, the heavens began to open.  Rain was sluicing down in sheets.  The huge open-air seaside buffet was clearly not going to withstand the forces of nature.

As we entered the main road, Zion, a devout Catholic, said, "Jesus must be angry they wouldn't let us sing his songs on his birthday."

I found her simple faith curiously comforting in that moment.

I have no idea what the Amanpuri resort was thinking if it accepted the idea of a classical Christmas concert without realizing that such a concert would contain both classical and Christmas music.  I haven't a clue why, if they were told that two well-known opera singers would be in the group, they didn't realize that they might be singing opera.  And why a ban on Christmas music on Christmas Eve?  And if so, what about telling the performers in advance?

It is, I suppose, a salutory lesson.  I've never been fired five minutes into a performance before, but there's a first time for everything.


  1. Dear Khun Somtow,

    We feel your pain! The Phuket International Film Festival this past June found out how uncultured some (NOT ALL) of the people and venues on Phuket are. They are certainly NOT ready for world class events.

    It is true, the Festival organizers were under funded and understaffed which caused some problems but overall it was the people of Phuket, in the end, that caused the failure of the Festival.

    Maybe some day....

  2. It would be interesting to hear your anecdotes sometime, Scott.

  3. Actually, Jingle Bells isn't Xmas music--it was written in November and never once mentions any sort of holiday, Christian or otherwise. It's purely a winter song.

  4. Cogitationis: that is ABSOLUTELY true. Jingle Bells became associated with Christmas. but its origins had nothing to do with Christmas and there are not Christmas-related references in the lyrics.- Somtow