Thailand's new military-appointed government has threatened to shut down an operatic version of Asia's classic Ramayana epic, ostensibly over fears that one of its scenes may bring bad luck, the opera's composer said.
The opera, Ayodhya, premiered on Thursday night and was scheduled for repeat performances yesterday and today, albeit with the "offensive" scene toned down after pressure from Culture Ministry officials.
The origins of the controversy remain murky. Like much of the theater world, opera is notorious for artistic backbiting and feuds. But the action comes as Thailand's interim government faces criticism for not lifting curbs on freedom of the press and other civil liberties.
The opera's composer, Somtow Sucharitkul, said on Friday that ministry officials had approached him a few days before the show's opening to complain about a scene involving the on-stage death of a key character, the demon-king, Thotsakan.
The officials, whom Somtow did not identify, said that portraying Thotsakan's death on stage was taboo in Thai culture and would be a "bad omen," the 53-year-old composer said.
Somtow said the officials told him that "If anything happened to anyone in power in Thailand, it would be blamed on this production."
The Ramayana -- the Thai version is called the Ramakien -- is a Hindu epic that is the origin for much traditional Southeast Asian drama. A tale of love and death, good and evil, it is sometimes compared to the classic Greek Homeric myths.
Ministry officials could not be contacted for comment yesterday, when their offices were closed.
The idea that depicting Thotsakan's death will bring misfortune is usually applied to traditional Thai masked dramas known as khon. It is not known to exist in other Asian countries.
Somtow and the opera's stage director, Hans Nieuwenhuis of the Netherlands Opera Studio, agreed to modify the controversial scene so that the audience would not actually see the character die, though "not a note or word of the libretto was changed," Somtow said.
The following day, however, the ministry sent over a new contract including "a broad clause saying that if anything in the opera offended the morals of Thailand, they had the right to close down the opera immediately," said Somtow, who signed it.
Somtow -- a fervent monarchist who staged the work as a personal tribute to King Bhumibol Adulyadej -- said the pressure "seems to involve nationalism."
The censorship incident comes as the government of interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont is facing criticism at home and abroad for its restrictions on democratic freedoms.
Surayud was appointed after a Sept. 19 coup d'etat that ousted elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who had been accused of corruption and abuse of power.
Martial law imposed at the time of the coup has still not been lifted, and the media have been warned not to undertake reporting that could undermine stability.