07 November 2016

Singapore's Opera Scene

There were two operatic productions in Singapore over the weekend.  Add to this the two big operas staged over the past two months, and you get the picture that the place is awash with opera.

But there are problems.  Big operas of the Italian/German/French tradition have been imported into Singapore along with the baggage that comes with them.  Audiences feel alienated by the excesses, the opulence, the lavish stages and costumes, the big orchestras, the powerful voices, and have adopted the idea, prevalent in European and US communities, that opera is for the elite – both the ersatz-intellectual elite and the wealthy elite; people who dress up, sit avidly through hours of foreign-language unrealism, discuss the minutiae of technicalities over champagne in the interval and seem to have the whole heritage of operatic productions at their fingertips.

So the triple bill staged by L'arietta over the weekend, under the generic title “Operacalypse Now!” was a most welcome attempt to address the issue of audience alienation.  A bar, an informal setting (the Aliwal Arts Centre) and plenty of Halloween-themed furnishings all helped create a relaxed atmosphere, if not a downright rowdy one, while the three short operas they staged all were designed to bring the fun back into opera. (It’s been there all along, it’s just that too many of us feel opera is such a high-end activity that we need to invest it with something rather more weighty than just good old belly laughs.) 

Belly laughs were the stuff of L’arietta’s production.  Many of these were extremely contrived – the use of video inserts, especially featuring local scenes and people, served no operatic or artistic purpose but gave the locals plenty to laugh about – but there’s nothing wrong with that if it gets the audience feeling even more relaxed and responsive than they do after consuming the wine and beer on tap at the back. 

Belly laughs were also contrived by American composer Patrick Soluri whose 2013 mini-opera for Fort Worth, Figaro and the Zombie Apocalypse - was remodelled to form the opening and closing numbers of this operatic triptych.  On this occasion the belly laughs were quotations from big traditional operas.  It was interesting to note how quickly and how fully the audience picked these up; this was not an audience of operatic virgins (something which Leslie Tay found out to his cost when he tried to whip the audience up during the scene shifts for the third opera by running a kind of Grand Opera quiz). 

The first of Soluri’s operas, given the title Figaro’s Last Hangover found Tay in the role of an inexplicably be-cloaked alcoholic by the name of Figaro Montague, drinking away the last few minutes of earth’s existence (an asteroid was on its way to make a catastrophic impact) and attempting to rekindle his childhood love for Carmen Capulet.  (Note the Romeo and Juliet sub-text.)  Of course Barber of Seville and Carmen popped up as the obvious musical references, but the humour was a little too contrived to be entirely without embarrassment.  When this scene was replayed at the end, the humour had worn very thin and only the erratic appearance from the back of the room of a number of sexy young girls pretending to be the living dead but looking awfully like the sort of things you see every evening staggering out of Orchard Towers, gave us all a good belly laugh to end with. (I’m not sure how Zombies fit in to it all when the earth is about to be destroyed – but then my interest in science fiction ends with page 1987 of Lord of the Rings so I’m sure I’m missing something here.)

Leslie Tay seemed miscast.  I've met plenty of drunks in bars in my time (I may even have been one myself) and he lacked credibility; he was too stable and upright, and the only tight thing about him was his voice, which while laser-precise in its pitching, had a certain strained quality to it.  As a character he was neither pathetic nor contemptible, and as a singer he lacked presence.

In the role of Carmen, Kristin Symes also failed to impress.  Perhaps because of the somewhat static production which did not give her the space to flaunt her sexual charms.  The character was unconvincing, while her voice was too neat and restrained to give off any real aura of sensuousness.

The centrepiece of the triptych was not only musically the most distinguished but operatically the most fully worked out of the three pieces.  I have to express an interest here.  Michael Hurd, whose The Widow of Ephesus was that central opera, used to live near my old school and would frequently come in and work with us on his opera-in-school projects.  We were involved in first and early performances of such classics as Jonah-Man Jazz and Mr Punch and I was thrilled when, a year or so ago, Naxos released a CD of his music which brought it to a wider audience than just English schoolchildren.  Hurd’s genius (and I would put it as strongly as that) was his ability to write accessible yet interesting music, to convey genuinely human emotions which transcend the limitations of time and place, and to deliver that wonderfully English subtlety of humour which means that the jokes are there on so many different levels few can fail to identify them.  Certainly the audience at Saturday’s show caught nearly all of the gags and responded enthusiastically; audience participation should be roundly encouraged in all opera, and it was a joy to have it so fulsome here.

L’arietta’s masterstroke was to stage this short, amusing, one-act opera.  If only Singapore would realise that you need to nurture an audience through gradually working them up to the big ones, and not just throw Verdi, Puccini and Wagner at them and expect them to respond like good Europeans.  It is, to me, a scandal that we have yet to have productions of such one-act masterpieces as Walton’s The Bear, Holst’s Savitri (which, with its strong Asian story, surely is a natural for Singapore) and, most especially, Menotti’s The Telephone which is utterly tailor-made to appeal to a young Singaporean audience. Hopefully L’arietta will go there soon. 

But back to the immediate past.

The Widow of Ephesus was composed in 1971 and is based on an episode from the Satyricon of Gaius Petronius written sometime in the 1st century AD.  This might look like one of those classic stories of heroes and gods which is what puts so many people off traditional opera, but Hurd's own libretto and fantastic music, provides 45 minutes of utterly entertaining stuff which can be adapted to suit any time and place.  L’arietta chose a tomb in some kind of Transylvanian setting – and it all worked very well indeed.

Angela Hodgins was outstanding as the Widow.  Gloriously over-the-top in her widow's mourning and wailing, wonderfully seductive when she encountered the Soldier, and tremendously patronising in her dealings with her Maid.  Subtle movement of the eyes and outrageously extravagant posturing in the doorway of the tomb all combined to create quite the most arresting operatic character; a parody of traditional opera heroines but warmly human as well.  We laughed at the mockery of opera conventions yet fell in love with the humour of the situation.  And her voice was strong, clear and focused enough to be entirely comfortable even to the most untutored of ears.

Reuben Lai was also outstanding as the Soldier.  Only slightly less vocally assertive than Hodgins, but equally strong and precise.  Not the kind of tenor who would make much of an impact in Dutchman or Turandot but absolutely right for this setting, and as an actor he was peerless, knowing exactly how to get the audience worked up when he lustfully dived into the tomb after the Widow, and getting all the laughs he wanted when he re-emerged from it somewhat dishevelled.  His acting had also been particularly impressive as the bartender in the two Soluri pieces, even if neither had called much upon his vocal skills.

Kristin Symes was the maid and she shone in this role in a way she did not as Carmen.  Again, the production did not help her convey a credible character; why did she appear with a suitcase and coat, and then seem to forget about them when her mistress came out to speak with her?  Was she genuinely hungry, cold and fed up or were these analogous expressions?  The words were there, but nothing seemed to support this in the way she strolled seductively around the front of the set cosying up to the Soldier.  Vocally, however, she was excellent and brought about some of the most entertaining moments in the whole opera when she infused her voice with contempt, amusement and gullible naivety.  Her asides were delivered with tremendous bitchiness.

The real star of the show was not a voice, however, but the phenomenally astute pianist/music director Aloysius Foong who kept it all flowing even when the production seemed to stagnate and when the scene shifts seemed to take a little longer than expected.

It was, unquestionably, a fun-filled and hugely entertaining production, but it was something more than that.  It was a demonstration that at least some people in Singapore know how to woo an audience for opera both through good programming and exquisite performing.

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