Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The opera's over

That old saw about the opera being over is going to have to change. Now, as the latest work by Somtow Sucharitkul, Ayodhya, demonstrates, it's not over until the press conference is held.

The opera, based on Thailand's national epic, the Ramakien, premiered over the weekend in a two-performance run. But in the ensuing days, a controversy has arisen that has hit the international press. It seems that the Culture Ministry made Somtow sign a contract to make him change his opera so that one of the principle characters, Thotsakan, dies offstage. To have him die onstage, the Culture Ministry said, would bring bad luck to Thailand.

Yeah, you read that right: If a character in an opera dies, it will bring bad luck to an entire nation.

Somtow went along with the decree, though, I suppose, so he could get his ambitious project staged. If he had protested beforehand, it might not have come off at all.

The Nation covered the story today, and it hit the international press over the weekend, including the BBC, AP and UPI.

The foreign press, which have a limited understanding of the issue, are quick to blame the junta and the recent coup for the crackdown. Let me put it as nice as I can: the Culture Ministry have always been thorny about the issue. Their stance on the opera mirrors a performance earlier this year (and before the coup) by Thai rock musicians in New York for the Ramakien: A Rak Opera.

It has nothing to do with the coup. It has to do with aspects of Thai culture and religion that go back thousands of years. As with the Rak Opera, the ministry holds that Ayodhya falls under the guidelines of khon dance performance, the form of masked dance in which the Ramakien is depicted. It is held sacred in Thailand, and there's no room for monkeying around with it, in the Culture Ministry's eyes.

Somtow, in The Nation today, said that khon experts disagree as to whether the taboo against the onstage death of Thotsakan is an ancient tradition or whether it was established in the early 20th century.

"This is not a matter on which the Ministry's experts hold the sole, unanimous opinion. So, even if the traditions of khon did apply to opera, the argument can work both ways. My personal problems with this matter have nothing to do with the death of Thotsakan at all - as I have said, both the director and I did a great deal to accommodate the tradition as it was stated to us. My personal problems as an artist are that the Ministry feels it has the right to impose a blanket restriction on a work of art. This is a chilling and positively Stalinist concept.

"The word culture is a holistic thing. It is about ancient traditions, but it also about modern explorations of tradition. A culture is alive precisely because it grows and is continually reinvented. Our job as artists is to mirror society and the human condition, and, most of all, always to speak the truth no matter what the cost."

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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