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WEDNESDAY, December 07, 2022
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LONDON THRILLS TO 'MAE NAAK'

LONDON THRILLS TO 'MAE NAAK'

WEDNESDAY, October 12, 2011

Somtow Sucharitkul becomes the first Thai composer to debut an opera in Europe

Londoners got to meet Thailand’s favourite ghost last month when Opera Siam presented three performances of Somtow Sucharitkul’s Euro-Asian fusion opera “Mae Naak”. 

The brief but intense “tour” culminated with 80 musicians, dancers, singers, choristers and backstage technicians producing a sell-out at the Bloomsbury Theatre.
After a lavish reception at the Thai Embassy, the tour opened with a double-header at St George’s Cathedral in Southwark, where the Siam Philharmonic Orchestra, sponsored by the Mountbatten Institute, collaborated with the Fairhaven Singers of Cambridge to put on a concert commemorating the 9/11 tragedy. 
Somtow conducted Mozart’s Requiem and Trisdee na Patalung conducted the British premiere of a work specially commissioned by the Mountbatten Institute, “The Mountbatten Cantata”.
It’s a tribute to Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, and Somtow chose the words of the renowned Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore to portray what he called “life’s perilous voyage through a tumultuous ocean”. 
Descendants of both Lord Mountbatten and Tagore were present at the event and gave moving speeches. Stan Gayuski of the International Mahler Society said Somtow’s cantata “held my attention the whole way” and called it “a major piece of work”. 
The meshing of the Siam Philharmonic with the singers from Cambridge – in just one day – was a testament to the international language of music. 
Thai sopranos Zion Daoratanahong and Pimluk Veeswasti made impressive London debuts at the concert.
Over the next few days, the crew prepared feverishly for the opening of “Mae Naak”. 
“The obstacles were tremendous,” Somtow says. “A week before departure we were still trying to raise money so that some chorus members could travel to London. The set didn’t fit on the plane. One of the cast members got stalled at immigration in Britain. Many things, such as the accommodation scouted by the British partners, came as a shock to the musicians. 
“And yet, miraculously, it came together.”
In fact, every seat was sold for the final night. London Fringe Review called it “a stunning work that fuses a European operatic style with Thai folkloric music”. 
“It deserves to be shown for far more than a short three-night season,” the critic wrote. “I recommend that it return to London again.” 
And in The Stage: “Best of all is the committed playing of the mainly young musicians of the Siam Philharmonic Orchestra, and the perfect control obtained by conductor Trisdee na Patalung.”
As the demonic Naak, Nancy Yuen reprised the role she originally created in 2003 and has clearly made her own, deftly blending dark comedy and pathos. Her signature pianissimo top notes are still very much in evidence. Kyu Won Han as Maak was a virile presence. 
Also of note were the many members of Opera Siam’s Young Soloists Programme making their international debuts in various supporting roles. 
British aristocrats attending the events included Lady Elizabeth Anson and Lord Ivar Mountbatten, cousins to Queen Elizabeth, and Viscount and Viscountess Bangor. Executives of the sponsoring companies were also in evidence, some having flown in from Bangkok for the spectacle.
Despite generous sponsorship from numerous entities – such as Bangkok Bank, the Crown Property Bureau, Siam Commercial Bank, Siam Cement and Siam Winery, as well as some sponsored tickets from Thai Airways – a large chunk of the earmarked funding is awaited. The Culture Ministry has yet to release funding already approved. 
Somtow is optimistic the government will come through. “This was something that vastly benefited our country’s international cultural profile,” he says.
Opera Siam is currently retrenching, he says. The enthusiastic reception in London for “Mae Naak” has brought offers from Germany, China, South Korea and the US. 
Somtow, meanwhile, heads to California this month to conduct two concerts with the Montage Civic Orchestra and present 16-year-old violinist Tanayut Jansirivorkul’s overseas concerto debut. 
The historical importance of the first opera premiere in Europe by a Thai composer should not be underestimated, Somtow says. The audiences were sophisticated and, for once, Thai classical musicians playing in an international musical genre were not viewed as curiosities, but accepted as peers.
“The door has been pried open,” he says. “The possibilities are endless now.”
 
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