Once referred to by the International Herald Tribune as “the most well-known expatriate Thai in the world,” Somtow Sucharitkul is no longer an expatriate, since he has returned to Thailand after five decades of wandering the world. He is best known as an award-winning novelist and a composer of operas. Born in Bangkok, Somtow grew up in Europe and was educated at Eton and Cambridge.
His first career was in music and in the 1970s he acquired a reputation as a revolutionary composer, the first to combine Thai and Western instruments in radical new sonorities. Conditions in the arts in the region at the time proved so traumatic for the young composer that he suffered a major burnout, emigrated to the United States, and reinvented himself as a novelist.
His earliest novels were in the science fiction field but he soon began to cross into other genres. In his 1984 novel Vampire Junction, he injected a new literary inventiveness into the horror genre, in the words of Robert Bloch, author of Psycho, “skillfully combining the styles of Stephen King, William Burroughs, and the author of the Revelation to John.” Vampire Junction was voted one of the forty all-time greatest horror books by the Horror Writers’ Association, joining established classics like Frankenstein and Dracula.
In the 1990s Somtow became increasingly identified as a uniquely Asian writer with novels such as the semi-autobiographical Jasmine Nights. He won the World Fantasy Award, the highest accolade given in the world of fantastic literature, for his novella The Bird Catcher. His fifty-three books have sold about two million copies world-wide.
After becoming a Buddhist monk for a period in 2001, Somtow decided to refocus his attention on the country of his birth, founding Bangkok’s first international opera company and returning to music, where he again reinvented himself, this time as a neo-Asian neo-Romantic composer. The Norwegian government commissioned his song cycle Songs Before Dawn for the 100th Anniversary of the Nobel Peace Prize, and he composed at the request of the government of Thailand his Requiem: In Memoriam 9/11 which was dedicated to the victims of the 9/11 tragedy.
According to London’s Opera magazine, “in just five years, Somtow has made Bangkok into the operatic hub of Southeast Asia.” His operas on Thai themes,Madana, Mae Naak, Ayodhya, and The Silent Prince have been well received by international critics. His most recent operas, the Japanese inspired Dan no Ura and the fantasy opera The Snow Dragon, have gained him acceptance as “one of the most intriguing of contemporary opera composers” (Auditorium Magazine).
He has recently embarked on a ten-opera cycle, Dasjati – The Ten Lives of the Buddha – which when completed will be the classical music work with the largest time span and scope in history. He is increasingly in demand as a conductor specializing in opera and in the late-romantic composers like Mahler. His repertoire runs the entire gamut from Monteverdi to Wagner. His work has been especially lauded for its stylistic authenticity and its lyricism. He has received the “Golden W” from the International Wagner Society. The orchestra he founded in Bangkok, the Siam Philharmonic, mounted the first complete Mahler cycle in the region.
Somtow’s current project, the Siam Sinfonietta, is a youth orchestra he founded seven years ago, using a new educational method he pioneered and which is now among the most acclaimed youth orchestras world-wide, receiving standing ovations in Carnegie Hall, The Konzerthaus in Berlin, Disney Hall, the Musikverein in Vienna, and many other venues around the world.
He is the first recipient of Thailand’s “Distinguished Silpathorn” award, given for an artist who has made and continues to make a major impact on the region’s culture, from Thailand’s Ministry of Culture.
He is the first Asian (and only the second composer after Hans Werner Henze) to receive the Europa Kultur-Forum’s European Cultural Achievement Award.