Thailand's Somtow Sucharitkul - composer, conductor and science fiction writer - will premiere his latest musical endeavour: the opera Ayodhya, on Thursday. He calls it "the world's first grand opera" based on Asia's classic epic Ramayana.
Best known in the West for science fiction and horror works written under the name SP Somtow, the Eton- and Cambridge-educated Somtow devotes much of his energy at home serving as the artistic director of the Bangkok Opera and the Siam Philharmonic Orchestra.
The Ramayana is traditionally a showcase for the classical dance traditions of India and the Southeast Asian countries where it is part of the cultural heritage.
But the new opera stakes a claim to being an innovative mix of modern European stagecraft with ancient Asian values.
With stage direction by Hans Nieuwenhuis of the Netherlands Opera Studio, the cast includes Thai, Russian, American, Dutch and Chinese artists, and the singing will be in English.
Well-known British countertenor Michael Chance and Hong Kong-born soprano Nancy Yuen top the bill. State-of-the art multimedia technology will be used to help ensure that the 2 1/2-hour production "moves as fast as an action movie," said the 53-year-old Somtow.
"I hope it will not offend anyone," Somtow said. But "many people in Thailand may find it appalling."
"It's an opera written for people who grew up on Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings," he explained. "At the same time, the opera is not a simple retelling, but a complete rethinking of the Ramayana in terms of contemporary society and culture."
Somtow - who also maintains a home in Los Angeles added that he has created the work as a personal tribute to Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who this year celebrated 60 years on the throne.
The Ramayana, known in Thailand as Ramakien, is a mythical story that originated in India and is treated as a national epic in many Asian countries.
It tells a story about fighting between good and evil characters and the doomed love of the heroine, Sita, after she was rescued from a giant demon by her husband, Rama. "I think that an outsider can sometimes bring new insights into old works simply because they are outsiders and look at things differently," said Nieuwenhuis, explaining his reasons for joining the project. "We are not trying to shock people here. We just want to tell the story the way it should be told."
Somtow was a musical wunderkind in the 1970s who composed avant-garde music before what his Web page calls "a severe case of musical burnout" caused him to turn to writing in the early 1980s. His more than 40 books include several award winners in the sci-fi and horror genres.
In the 1990s he picked up his baton again and composed two Thai-themed operas, Madana and Mae Naak, which opened in 2001 and 2003 respectively. He has also composed five symphonies and a ballet.
With a characteristic lack of modesty, he tackled one of the greatest operas of all time earlier this year, when he brought to Bangkok Southeast Asia's first professional production of "Das Rheingold" the prologue of German composer Richard Wagner's famous four-part "Ring" cycle. He and the Bangkok Opera company plan to complete the staging of the cycle here by 2010. As with "Ayodhya," Somtow included many cross-cultural elements in his production of "Das Rheingold."
He used an international cast and gave it a distinctly Buddhist slant by setting the 19th century opera in modern day Thailand.