Nadlada Thamtanakom has come a long way from a girl who simply liked to sing to a new opera sensation. Tomorrow, the soprano will sing in the Thailand debut of Somtow Sucharitkul's The Silent Prince, a Buddhist-themed opera based on a previous reincarnation of Lord Buddha. The opera was premiered in Houston two years ago to positive critical reception.
"I want to share this story. The amazing way to do it is to share it through music," said Nadlada. "I have known the story since I was a child because I am Buddhist. It is one of the 10 incarnations of Lord Buddha."
The opera tells the story of Prince Temiya, one of the former incarnations of Buddha. When the prince is young it is apparent that he is different and very observant. As he grows older his father, the king, takes him everywhere and Temiya sees his father rule with torture and cruelty.
Temiya does not want to be king if he must kill but also does not want to disappoint his father. Unable to make a decision he retreats into silence until the end when he reveals that he is the Boddhistava.
"The story tells me that if we are willing to try to do something it will be completed," explained Nadlada. "I found this story is great for any professional or any people who are willing to do something, especially something good. Sometimes they give up because the bad thing is more powerful or it is hard. If they really want to do it they should try anyway and then the good things will be accomplished."
It is a lesson that Nadlada can convey because of her own experience with music. Although she is well known throughout the Thai opera scene for playing sought-after roles in the Bangkok Opera since her early 20s, it has been and remains a challenging road to operatic stardom.
Nadlada began singing when she was just six years old and by the time she was nine she was winning competitions for singing pop music. Her mother was her music teacher and she continued to sing but soon studies took over. When it came time to think about university, Nadlada had not even considered that a person could study music.
"My friend told me to study music because I was going to go for another subject," she said. "I hadn't realised that I actually sang all the time but I didn't know anything about classical music."
After hearing that you need to know multiple languages and music theory, Nadlada was discouraged but decided to listen to some classical music to see what it sounded like. "The first time when I heard the music I listened 100 times in one day, the same piece 100 times," she said. "I could feel it, I had tears come out a bit, and the music was in my body. So I told myself that I would study classical music."
She prepared for her entrance exam and although she excelled in vocal abilities she was denied entrance because of her lack of knowledge on theory. Instead of giving up she enrolled in a music course at Ban Somedej Chao Phraya Rajabhat University. She focused on working hard to increase her vocal skills and knowledge of theory when an opportunity to work with the Bangkok Opera literally walked into her life.
"I just went to school and was having a lesson with my teacher when someone came to my class and said they were going to audition for The Magic Flute by Mozart. So I followed the lady," she said with a laugh. "At that moment I didn't know what audition even meant."
When it came time for the audition she picked a song she knew, The Queen Of The Night by Mozart. The character is a mother and usually played by someone in their 40s but Nadlada, who at the time was 21, walked in and sang her heart out.
"I sang to him, and he was like, 'Wow!' You sound great but that song is not for you'," she said.
Afraid that she had not done well, Nadlada hurried home without leaving any contact information. It took a few weeks until the director of the opera could track her down and offered her the understudy role for Queen Of The Night. It was her first onstage performance in 2004 with the Bangkok Opera.
"My daughter in the opera was so much taller than me, I was the mother," Nadlada joked.
Opportunities to sing with the Bangkok Opera continued while Nadlada finished her studies. When she received her bachelor's degree she decided that to truly expand her abilities on stage she needed to expand her life experiences. In a risky move and with the help of a scholarship from the Khun Kasem-Phornthip Narongdej Foundation, Nadlada relocated to Belgium.
"I needed more experience, I needed to see the world," she explained. "When I sang Summertime I didn't know the feeling of summer time because in Thailand it is always hot. I could not give that expression to the audience."
She was accepted into the Royal Conservatory of Brussels despite the fact that her entire course study would be in French and she did not speak a word. Through hard work she succeeded in her classes and began to learn the power behind the emotion and story of the operas.
"I have learned so much about the poem, and about how to be an artist. I want to share it with the audience," she explained. "When I sing I use the whole body and it comes from my heart."
After graduating with top marks she was one of 10 singers accepted in Operastudio Vlaanderen, a post graduate programme where you work as a professional singer. When the programme ended she once again had to look at how she could continue to pursue her dream.
"I didn't know what to do next. I am not European so I had problems with the visa," she said. "I need more experience on stage and I need to carry on learning all the time."
So once again she took her luck into her own hands. With fellow singers she started the Bang-up! Opera group in Belgium. She has since competed and placed in many vocal competitions throughout Europe. She was also recently hired for the Vlaamse Opera in Gent, Belgium and despite much hassle has received a visa to continue working in Europe. "I went to so many offices and it was like a day before I had to come back to Thailand, but I got it!" she exclaimed after the two-month process.
Although she will be going back to Belgium, right now she is focused solely on The Silent Prince. The prospect of working with an important Thai composer on an opera that speaks specifically to her values was an opportunity she could not pass.
In The Silent Prince, she portrays three characters on stage including one to signify temptation.
"I come on stage and try to give Temiya an idea to be king, have palaces, gold and women. The devil that I sing appears with a very, very high sound," she said before showing an example of exactly how high her vocal range is. "Another Devil sang by John Adams is sung very low like a devil from hell. Even if you don't understand what we are saying you will be scared because of the range between the soprano and the bass baritone."
With two performances of The Silent Prince for the first time in Thailand this week Nadlada said she hopes people walk away with more than a night at the opera to remember.
"In this world there is suffering and this story can help people be peaceful, have a good heart, and try to do good things," she said. "It's important especially for the people that don't know this story. They may go to the opera and come away with questions or an idea of how to have a good life."
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Writer: Kelly Malone