Mon, Feb 06, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Wagner opera holds political meaning for some Thais


More than 120 years after his death, German composer Richard Wagner makes his operatic debut in Southeast Asia with a performance of Das Rheingold that portrays a divine Eastern kingdom humbled by greed and Western culture.

With its themes of power and political corruption, the opera could have been crafted for modern-day Asia, says the show's Thai director, Somtow Sucharitkul.

"It's all about how the gods become corrupted, so it fits," he said during a dress rehearsal a few days ahead of the show's opening night.

"Maybe we'll end up getting arrested or sued for libel," he quips, alluding to the frequent fate of government critics in this region.

Das Rheingold -- the first of a four-part series known as The Ring Cycle -- is being performed in Bangkok, with a world-class international cast and orchestra. And while none of the words or score has been changed, the production takes a Buddhist slant.

The theft of a golden ring, traditionally portrayed as a kind of Christian original sin, in Somtow's version launches the Buddhist cycle of karma, fueled by attachment or greed, that creates life and all its beautiful imperfections.

On stage, this is represented by a transformation from a timeless monochromatic Nirvana into a brashly colorful world of Western consumer goods.

In the first act, the singers wear traditional Southeast Asian royal court costumes. But by the time the curtain falls, they are wearing decadently Western attire: an Elvis-like golden jacket, a naughty schoolgirl outfit and a Hawaiian shirt that would be suit a tourist in a red light district in Bangkok.

Valhalla, the paradise that the chief god Wotan has sacrificed his soul to build, turns out to be a modern Asian metropolis.

The political implications should be clear to the audience in Thailand, where tens of thousands of people recently rallied to call for the ouster of the prime minister over allegations of corruption and abuse of power. Somtow notes political parallels could also be drawn to neighboring states like Myanmar and Cambodia.

He also draws parallels between launching Das Rheingold in Asia with its original premiere in Germany 1869: the audience and performers for the most part are unfamiliar with the music.

"It's like turning the clock back 150 years," he says. "That's why it could be very exciting, despite the imperfections."

Challenges in forming the unusual oversized orchestra needed may also help explain why Asia has waited so long to see this, considered by some to be one of the West's greatest artistic achievements.

The Wagner tubas -- a large horn designed by the composer -- were obtained from the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra by guest musician Hanz Pizka, who then trained local Thai musicians to play them.

Somtow managed to draft the seven harpists from Bangkok's harp academy. To fill out the necessary super-sized string section, about a dozen violinists were flown in from the Vietnam National Opera. Even so, the string section is smaller than it should be.

"We couldn't have fit any more in the orchestra pit," Somtow says.

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