Friday, November 27, 2009

Culture Vulture

Annual festivals play a big role in Thai life. Besides commemorative and religious celebrations, all sorts of other events go on throughout the year as well. No matter what time or month you happen to be in Bangkok, you’re most likely to find something going on.

This week affords a prime example: World Opera Week. Taking place from November from 23-29 at the Thailand Cultural Centre, the mini-fest features a re-vamped production of La Bohème, Beethoven’s 9th (which isn’t technically an opera but we shan’t quibble) and a newly composed opera, A Boy and a Tiger, by Bruce Gaston. The trio of operas and seven performances were again, like its predecessor, the International Festival of Dance and Music [Sept 9-Oct 11], aimed at helping position Bangkok as a cultural centre for world-class performing arts in Asia.

Please indulge me for a few lines while I rant about the lack of cultural awareness in Bangkok. When I first moved her 5 months ago I was genuinely shocked and pleasantly surprised to find such a thriving cultural scene. In a relatively short amount of time I’ve already attend the symphony once, ballet twice and opera three times, not to mention seeing countless screenings at the cities ubiquitous film festivals [see my post in the coming days about the EU Film festival]. And all for a fraction of the cost back home (Australia in my case). Now I don’t know if the “charms” of Soi Cowboy and Patpong are simply too great to pass up, if the general public just don’t care or people genuinely don’t know about these going’s on, but attendance, both Thai and pharang, is very low. I was embarrassed that Thursday’s performance, by a slew of top international talent, was made to an auditorium only 1/3 full. Still, it’s not my place or desire to counter this cultural malaise that has gripped the masses. I’ll just say that Bangkok is currently a mecca for fantastic shows and I encourage everybody to start attending before the whole thing evaporates out of financial penury.

Now, back to my story... I was fortunate enough to catch Thursday night’s performance of La Bohème, under the direction of Darren Royston from RADA. The performance starred Nancy Yuen [born in HK, and now based in UK/Singapore, Nancy is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, best known for her signature role of Cio-cio-san (Madama Butterfly). She is currently the residing soprano of Thailand's Bangkok Opera] and Israel Lozano [made his operatic debut at the tender age of 22. Israel went on to studu at John Hopkins and win an unprecedented three prizes in the Plácido Domingo International Operalia Competition 2003] who returned to Bangkok after co-starring in a highly-acclaimed version of Madame Butterfly two years ago, with music by the Siam Philharmonic Orchestra and the Orpheus Choir of Bangkok. Although both the leads were indeed fantastic, I actually found the buxom and bawdy Musetta to be the real draw; she was a scene-stealer from start to finish. The deep-voiced Colline was also a favourite, he sang with real emotion and fortitude.

Although I cannot own at being a connoisseur of opera, I can put my hand up as a bonafide devotee. But I do appreciate that for many, opera is just a sea of overweight performers, strange plots and incomprehensible singing. In fact, the entire opera scene is quite overwhelming and extremely acquired taste. So should you simply resign yourself to the fact that you are not opera patron material? Not just yet. I’m here to tell you that it is an art form that new comers can learn to appreciate. Few people are born enjoying opera from the get go. For most, opera appreciation requires a little study and a lot of patience. Remember, a majority of people in listening don’t understand what the performers are singing either. For true opera lovers, it is not what the performers are saying, but how they say it.

A nutshell, the more operas you attend, the more you’ll begin to enjoy how the performers sing, rather than what exactly they are saying. To ensure a more successful opera experience, start with lighter Italian and Austrian operas, such as Madame Butterfly by Puccini (my personal favourite) or The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart, are considered light operas. The recitatives are short and sweet, and the arias are quite melodic. German opera – particularly Wagner – is much heavier, and is more of an acquired taste. Either way, I don’t think it’s restrictive if you simply give it a go. In the famous words of Dr Seuss: “You may like them, you will see!”

So, for those wanting to dip their toe into the world of opera, follow my FIVE simple steps to enjoyment:
• Familiarise yourself with opera terms and formats
• Listen to the opera before attending a performance
• Read the libretto, or words, to an opera beforehand
• Find out the story line of the opera beforehand [Wikipedia is good for this]
• Read about the composer, his influences and historical period.

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