By Tomáš Bazika
Special to The Nation
The opera stars an international cast and is conducted by Trisdee na Patalung. Excerpts have been played already in Slovakia, Hungary, Czechia and Germany to great critical acclaim and standing ovations and this opera production may be one of Opera Siam’s most remembered achievements.
In an interview, Thai-American composer-conductor Somtow Sucharitkul talks about his most recent opera and his work on Paul Spurrier’s film “Eullenia”:
Q: The real character of your new opera Helena Citrónová is not free from controversy. A Jewish concentration camp inmate who had a love affair with a German camp guard. What drew you to this subject?
A: I discovered the story of this opera in a BBC documentary about Auschwitz. There was an interview with Helena and the story was very haunting. It was not a story about a triumphant love. It was full of ambiguity. It makes you ask all sorts of questions about the nature of love itself. I try to avoid answering any of the questions in the opera. I just want to present the story almost exactly as it happened according to the documented historical record. In a very real sense, the story came to represent to me what the holocaust really meant. Because it was not about people being horrible to other people. Of course, that happened. What it was really about was one group of people telling another group of people that they are not human. And in doing so, destroying their own humanity. Because the more you take away the humanity of other people, the more you reduce your own humanity. To me, Helena was a great hero because she refused to give up who she was.
Q: How is it relevant today – why should people care?
A: It’s relevant today because people have not learned their lessons. Many years ago, I started working with the Israeli, German and Czech embassies in Thailand about teaching young people about the Holocaust. I asked my students whether Thailand lost or won in the Second World War and they didn’t know the answer. Somebody had to tell them. This was when I started working on this, creating different programmes each year. In a sense, producing this opera on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz is basically a culmination of all these other works that I have done. It’s not just to teach local children about it. It’s about reminding everybody that the Holocaust is about six million people and it’s also about six million individuals.
Q: What role does Helena’s moral ambiguity have in your opera?
A: If you look at the story completely dispassionately, you might accuse the two people of having a selfish and transactional sort of relationship. That is one possible way of looking at the facts. It’s in contrast to this “great passion that conquers the universe” theme, which is another way of looking at it. Perhaps both of those stories are present. In the end it is a story about redemption. Therefore I don’t buy the sordid, transactional interpretation. In the opera you will see that the other girls call her a whore.
Q: Is your own view of the real-life Helena reflected in the opera?
A: I wouldn’t have written an opera about her if I didn’t see her as an extremely inspired character, despite some elements of ambiguity. I feel she represents for me a complete refusal to allow somebody to take away one’s personhood, no matter how awful the circumstances were. I think that Franz Wunsch even said afterwards that this is the lesson she had taught him. He felt somehow redeemed. Of course, he may have been making it up for the judges. Who knows? But there is a deep truth in the story that we can all learn from. There was some fear on the part of some Israelis when they heard that I was writing this opera that by making it a love story between “the bad guys” and the victims that somehow they were being made sort of equal. If you read the libretto or look at the opera that’s completely untrue. There is absolutely no whitewashing of the evil. The first time you see the hero of the story, he shoots an old man in the head and Helena sees this. That’s an incident that I created – it’s not in the historical record – because I wanted the audience to realise right away that this is not a misunderstood Nazi little boy. I wanted people to realise he was part of this operation.
Q: What is the lesson you would like the audience to consider?
A: I think it’s most important for people to see themselves in this work. To not think of it as some remote history in a fantasy universe that could never happen again. Things like this have happened again already. And it’s because we didn’t learn the lessons enough.
Q: You premiered an orchestral suite from “Helena” in Slovakia and in the Czech Republic this September. How was it received?
A: Well, I was quite frightened because, you know, Slovakia is Helena’s country. I had no idea how people would react to some total stranger bursting in on somebody else’s history. It was heartwarming because the reception in the places that were most involved in the story was extremely positive and enthusiastic. And it was then that I understood that the opera seems to have something to say to everyone. One of the most exciting things that happened was that the Slovaks immediately started the discussion about opening the opera in the National Theatre in Bratislava. This is already in talks. I was very happy about that. It was kind of a validation of the idea of universality in the story. I am having similar questions in Thailand. Why in the hell are you doing this? This has nothing to do with you. I mean, in a sense, not to say something is kind of complicity.
Q: What are your expectations for the premiere of “Helena” in January 2020?
A: Well, the Bangkok premiere is happening in January and this production will go to Europe. I don’t know. I’m actually quite frightened [laughs] because we are opening this opera in a country where there’s a fast food chain called Hitler Fried Chicken and where a common slang in Thai for stingy is “Jew”. This is amazing because as far as I know the actual number of Jewish people that the Thais may have met in person is probably almost non-existent. For some reason, many of the tropes of this have infiltrated this culture. We had to do a lot of explanation about why Hitler Fried Chicken is not cool.
Q: You made a new recording – the first recording in Thailand – of Carlo Gesualdo’s music for Paul Spurrier’s film “Eullenia”. Do you recall your first conversation with Spurrier about your involvement in the film?
A: He consulted me about it. He said that the character of the crazy composer Gesualdo is deeply rooted in the story. The fact that there is a serial killer who sort of bases himself on Gesualdo means that you can’t just have a random piece of music. It had to be that [Gesualdo’s] piece of music. And then he looked around for a version that he could buy the rights to. I pointed out that I always wanted to do a lot of Gesualdo here and that this should be a good excuse for me to do an all-Gesualdo concert. Or maybe doing the concert was a good excuse to record the music. I don’t know what happened. It was a kind of serendipity. We were all thinking of Gesualdo at the same time.
Q: Gesualdo was an Italian Renaissance composer, a financially independent prince and a count, who murdered his wife and got away with it. Did Gesualdo’s life story influence you or inform your interpretation of his music?
A: Well, I haven’t killed my wife [laughs]. Gesualdo was in many ways completely brilliant. He did things that were not done in music for another 300 years. Actually, I think people who have studied music of the Renaissance do realise this. He is not as obscure as one might think. It’s just that his music is never performed because it’s so difficult. It’s unperformable. So getting local musicians to do it was very challenging.
Q: How was it collaborating with the Calliope Chamber Choir and the Jatava Quartet on the Gesualdo recording?
A: For the Jatava Quartet it was pretty easy. They’d played really hard stuff before. But for the Calliope Choir, it was very challenging. In fact, the reason I used the string quartet and the choir in many of the compositions, as well as other instruments, was because for some of this music to be sung a cappella might have been impossible for this group. In the 16th and the 17th centuries, it was customary for the different parts in madrigals to be performed either by people or by instruments. It wasn’t really specified as much. So I used this idea to sometimes use the instruments to help the singers and also to create different colouristic effects by having different combinations for each piece.
Q: The music features prominently in the scene in which the protagonist Marcus Hammond reveals himself and his inspiration to the final victim. What do you think about how the music is used in the film?
A: It seems to be used the way the director intended and it seems to work in the way he intended. The whole film is, in a way, the opposite of a Gesualdo piece because the film is frighteningly inexorable. It moves like a really slow steam roller towards a woman who is chained to the pavement. It doesn’t stop and it doesn’t speed up. It just goes and goes. And the anticipation of crushing this person gets almost unbearable. It’s Paul’s relentless, unbroken pacing so that the entire film is like one [musical] movement. One arc. This is very unusual. Now, Gesualdo’s music is not like that at all because he’ll just go for a few bars and then he’ll suddenly interrupt it with a completely different thing. In fact, it’s the opposite of Paul Spurrier’s way of conceiving a work of art. So it’s quite interesting that it becomes the metaphor for the art. Outside of that, we talked about the fourth wall a lot. The fourth wall is a visual idea. Basically, the character suddenly looks straight into the camera at the audience and this is breaking that wall. But this film breaks that wall in an auditory way. Another instance of that happening is in the film “Philadelphia” in the scene where Tom Hanks talks about a particular operatic aria. This scene [in Eullenia, in which the protagonist looks into and speaks to the camera] to me is a parallel take on that idea. I don’t know many others that are like it. I don’t know if Paul was referencing it deliberately.
Q: Can we forget when listening to Gesualdo the fact that the music was composed by a person who did horrible things like murdering his wife?
A: I would say it’s extremely rare for any really, really brilliant person to not have a few dark places. Gesualdo had more than a few, of course. I mean if we stopped listening to every composer who we found morally repugnant we would probably end up not listening to most of the music we listen to. A lot of the time there’s a price for genius. Geniuses have shadows. Sometimes their demon comes from an inner dark world. So I would try not to think about the composer as a person. I would rather think about their work. I mean often the very brilliance of their work stems from the darkness of their life. That’s the problem. But you can’t really perceive it as a separate thing. It’s just that that’s how the package comes. I am not saying being a creative genius is an excuse to kill your wife. I am just saying it seems to go together pretty often. That’s all.
"Helena Citronova" played this summer to standing ovations in Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Thailand will see the opera before any other country; the European premiere will be 10 months later. The play is performed at Thailand Cultural Centre 8pm on January 15, press preview (invitational), January 16 - official world premiere, and January 17 - second performance.