06 February 2011

Singapore's Operatic Bellwether

Much of this week has been spent discussing with various people Singapore’s position as a centre for the arts both regionally and internationally.  The consensus of opinion seems to be that while the infrastructure is in place for Singapore to be a major arts capital – outstanding venues for just about every conceivable artistic presentation, a world-class music conservatory and excellent college and university courses for budding artists in every discipline, superb arts education both private and school-based at every level, a keen and large potential audience for all branches of the arts, and generous and committed commercial and, above all, governmental support – those who support and promote the arts do not yet possess the critical maturity to differentiate between the second rate and the good.  Where the second-rate is accepted as the norm, there is no incentive for the arts scene to raise its game to become properly world-class.  On top of that, there is a wide-spread failure amongst audiences and local arts managers to appreciate that a nation’s artistic credentials are measured not in who it produces but who it attracts.  A great arts hub wants the very best from across the globe to shine from its territory; it doesn’t devote all its energies into encouraging local talent to shimmer.  You only need to look across the Causeway into Malaysia to see how that attitude is stifling the arts scene there.

Nowhere is that failure to cross the barrier between locally good and internationally acceptable more clearly felt than in the area of classical music.  Singapore boasts some of the most committed and enthusiastic choirs I have ever encountered; but local choral directors have to learn that the job of a choir is to make music, not to win competitions.  I know better than most – because I’m so often asked to adjudicate at choral competitions – that making great music is poles apart from winning a competition.  Similarly, local piano teachers spend all their time pushing their students to gain distinction in their exams at the lowest possible age, and have no idea that learning the piano is all about developing and enriching individual artistic sensitivities.  Local organists seem to huddle together in a tight circle, inspecting each other’s navels and doing their damndest to avoid the scrutiny of the general public (but there again, organists are like that the world over).  And perhaps most sad is the case of local orchestras who happily allow local audience appreciation to be their goal and never quite raise their game to truly international standards when playing at home.  You only need to hear the Singapore Symphony on tour or on record to know that, unconsciously, they offer the local audience a very different and inferior product to that which they provide to the overseas market.
It all boils down to a local audience having low expectations, largely because they have no exposure to anything better.  It doesn’t help that local concert promoters have similarly narrow horizons.  Why, for example, did nobody tell the Berlin Philharmonic when they came to Singapore that audiences could take rather more than the elementary programmes that they foist on to us?  Despite the fuss and expense, many realistically compared them with the SSO; something which would be a joke if the boot was on the other foot and the SSO had played to the audience in the Berlin Philharmonie.

I maintain that a nation can never produce great artists until it can provide an environment in which great art becomes an accepted norm; and that involves having outstanding foreign talent dominating the scene for a while at least.  That’s not the case in Singapore at the moment, and it’s hardly surprising that, despite all those Singaporeans passing through the great music conservatoires of the world, very, very few hold their own in an international context, even if they are lauded and admired back home.  I moved to Singapore two years ago and my burning ambition now is never to live anywhere else, but if I have to go, I’d like to think that I leave behind a place to which I can proudly point to my new neighbours and say; “I was part of the classical music scene in one of the greatest arts centres of the world”.  Before coming to Singapore, I spent a quarter of a century living in Malaysia and it is a matter of the greatest regret to me that, despite the phenomenal MPO, classical musical activity generally in Malaysia is no better now than it was when I first arrived; indeed, when I did some music examining in Malaysia last year, I was horrified to find that the execrable standards that had shocked me so much during my first examining stint there in 1985 had not significantly changed.  I first examined in Singapore in 1987; I’ve never done so again, and I wonder what I’d find if I did.  I’m not too optimistic at the moment.

So, determined to do my bit to raise musical standards in Singapore, I decided to attend the Singapore Lyric Opera’s production of Carmen making no critical allowances for the fact that this was a locally-based group who had achieved fantastic things despite all sorts of trials and tribulations over the course of its 20 year history.  I’ve read the background, spoken to the movers and shakers, and know that, by anyone’s standards, SLO’s rise in standards has been pretty astonishing.  But let’s ignore that.  Let’s treat them as one would treat any opera company in Europe or north America.  I’ve given up my Friday evening, I’ve paid for a pair of tickets (admittedly disgustingly little – as a fairly frequent visitor to opera houses across Europe, any ticket which doesn’t require a bank-loan seems disgustingly cheap to me), and I want to be impressed.  I know Carmen inside out, I’ve heard some of the world’s greatest companies and singers perform it on stage, and I’m not going to be satisfied with anything even remotely mediocre, even if people want me to “make allowances” for the fact that it is a Singapore company.  Why?  Is DBS a worse bank than BNP because it’s based in Singapore?  Does SIA have lower standards of safety and service than BA?  Of course not – in fact in both cases the opposite is true – so why don’t we have expectations that Singapore-based arts companies are on a par-  if not better than – those in Paris, Vienna or London?

From the start the omens were good.  When we went to the box office (or rather more prosaically, and far less efficiently, the local SISTIC outlet) we were told that Friday and Saturday were sold out.  We didn’t ask about later performances, but a little bit of cajoling managed to get us two tickets in a hidden box to one side of the stage.  If a relatively small place like Singapore can fill its grand theatre for opera two, if not four, nights running, then there is certainly a very healthy audience for opera.  And I must commend the audience.  They were extraordinarily attentive, well behaved and alert to the nuances of the work.  They applauded generously when it was appropriate, kept silent when things were not to their liking, cheered the good and kept mum for the less good, watched in rapt silence when the drama was at its height and laughed at the right places (and here’s a great Singapore achievement; the surtitles – odd translations as they were – unfailingly kept absolutely in synch with the singing – and that doesn’t often happen even in the best opera houses in the world).  This audience wasn’t making allowances for any perceived Singaporean shortcomings.

And, to be fair, there were not many significant shortcomings.  The SLO Orchestra were pretty astonishing, the occasional wind intonation and collapsing instrumental solos nothing more than you might expect from any opera company orchestra playing in a pit for the first night of a production.  In fact, I have heard a lot worse in Carmen and would suggest that the orchestra playing would have stood up to fairly close scrutiny from the most astute audiences anywhere in the world.  Of course, much of that was down to the conductor, Joshua Kangming Tan, who was, by any standards, very good indeed.  He kept a very tight rein on everything, made it clear to his players what was needed (from our hidden box we had a bird’s eye view of the goings-on in the pit, and pretty controlled they were too) and must have been Manna from Heaven to the singers on stage who were provided with a clear, unequivocal and always genial beat.  I was amazed to read that it was his first full length opera, and I suspect he’ll find himself in opera house pits the world over; on Friday’s showing he is already far better than a great many opera conductors whose names are familiar to those outside Asia.

The Chorus, too, was very good.  There were an awful lot of them on stage an awful lot of the time.  So many, in fact, that their movements were largely confined to strictly choreographed shuffles from one side of the reduced stage to the other and back again.  But if you closed your eyes you not only heard some outstanding choral singing, you also heard impressive power and the collective strength to sing out into the theatre.  Chorus Master Khor Ai Ming had done wonders on these singers’ projection; there were no problems of balance between chorus and orchestra, even if within the band, the low brass sometimes were given too much head.  In the interval I did overhear one audience member suggesting that the quality of the chorus was due to the injection of numbers from China; this was, after all, billed as a collaboration between the National Centre for the Performing Arts in China and the SLO.  But what of it?  It called itself a Singapore production and if a Singapore production attracted excellent singers from overseas, so much the better for Singapore.

Musically, the most impressive of all was the children’s choir.  Bizet could never have envisaged a children’s choir of such polish and self-assurance and, indeed, their very musical discipline and poise on stage rather undermined the character of urchins they were supposed to be playing.  Usually the children’s chorus in Carmen is coarse and ragged – I am certain this is what Bizet expected – but this was tightly disciplined and musically of the very highest order.

Of the soloists, Lee Jae Wook (Don José) would have stood his ground in the most august company.  He had presence, authority and had such vocal command that he was totally convincing in the role, even when the production turned his final act of desperation to secure Carmen’s love into a kind of demented religious zealot being persecuted by invisible demons.  The other hugely impressive voice on stage was Li Yang (Micaela) who exuded that curious blend of country-girl innocence and steely determination which surprisingly few manage to covey in this captivating but often elusive role.  Once or twice she had to fight to make herself heard, but for the most part hers was an easy and effective vocal delivery which, like, Lee’s, would have not disgraced the stage of the world’s most elevated opera houses.

There were some pretty impressive voices in supporting roles too.  Zhu Feng Jia was an outstanding Morales, relaxed, soldierly and totally in command of himself.  Cerylene Liew and Satsuki Nagatome (Frasquita and Mercedes) gave a captivating Card Scene, their astonishing vocal blend making them sound more like twin sisters than voices drawn from two ends of Asia.  William Lim (Zuniga) certainly sung well, but his characterisation was too genial to make real sense; when he was finally shot in the head, one imagined that under the black hood he was still grinning from ear to ear.

The casting of Sophie Fournier as Carmen was inspired.  She had the sensuous voice, the voluptuous looks and the erotic movements to make any red-blooded soldier fall for her.  Unfortunately, she didn’t seem to have the stamina and too often what started well ended up, both musically and dramatically, very flat.  And in an act of almost grotesque miscasting, Huang Rong Hai turned out to be a wholly unconvincing Escamillo,  Too scrawny both vocally and physically to command the role – in a straight fight with a dead sheep he might have come out on top, but face to face with a living, snorting bull, he wouldn’t have stood a chance – he only really came into his own in his act three duet with Don José when he appeared on stage dressed for all the world like a bishop, and sounding much like one too.

Sadly, it all fell apart with David Edwards’s dire production, which had all the charisma of a school play.  The action was forced so far to a small part of the front of the stage by the static set that there simply wasn’t the space for anyone to do any serious acting.  I’ve already suggested the chorus was too big to be on stage in its entirety so much of the time.  But why was the entire chorus always put out there? This huge milling crowd might have escaped notice amongst the throngs along Orchard Road on a Saturday afternoon in the run-up to Chinese New Year, but they failed to convince me that they were a bunch of bandits hiding from the law.  The production had them strictly partitioned at every stage into their voice groups (do wild mountain gypsies practice such strict sexual segregation in private?), and as they marched and shuffled pointlessly around the stage like so many refugees, images of Jews being marched off to the gas chambers inadvertently sprang to mind.

The simple set, which required no changes throughout the entire length of the opera, made sense and was used well, but what was the obsession with chairs? They crowded out the stage in the first half as if, once the opera was over, there was going to be a political rally (or a church one – is that why Huang had his bishop’s gear to hand?).  There were chairs everywhere, piled in clumps, assembled in rows and put into squares, at one point they were even assembled to look like the downstairs of an SBS Transit bus.  They provided a useful prop for those on stage, nervously wondering what to do with their hands, to clutch on to, but that’s what rank amateurs do; the SLO deserved better.  Thankfully all the chairs seemed to have been taken into the bullring for the final act, but the echo of their noisy feet on the stage remained.

The lighting, too, didn’t quite know what it was all about. Pretty good for the best part of the performance, I didn’t like the quasi-laser display at the end of Act 2 and as for the disco ball which suddenly appeared, did a couple of listless revolutions, and then disappeared again, that was a moment of sheer farce.  Intensely irritating rather than merely farcical, and extremely distracting, was the continual back projection of grainy black-and-white photographs which served no purpose other than to provide some movement (when the slides changed) above the stasis on stage.  When the women poured out and stood in front of the screen, it looked more like a line-up of cinema usherettes than cigarette-factory employees, and to see a real toreador standing over a slain bull only reinforced Huang’s physical inadequacies in the role.

The SLO’s Carmen perfectly reflected the view that Singapore arts stop short of the outstanding simply because nobody trusts the performers to raise their game.  We had great music-making and some world-class performances, but in the end it didn’t stand up because the production brought everything down to the most basic level.

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