This Friday, I am acting as Master of Ceremonies for the Singapore Lyric Opera's Gala Concert at the Esplanade Concert Hall. It will feature a host of popular opera extracts sung by soprano Nancy Yuen and tenor Lae Jae Wook, the Singapore Lyric Opera Chorus and Children's Choir, and with the Singapore Lyric Opera Orchestra. By a strange coincidence, yesterday a group of students doing a project asked me to answer four questions about opera. It struck me, having answered their questions, that perhaps their questions had a wider resonance outside their project, so I thought I would publish their questions and my responses. I would hope that, for my sake and theirs, some opposing or additional views might be added from others!
- Given the varying definitions of western opera we found online, such as a genre of classical music or a form of theatre in which music has a leading role and the parts are taken by singers, is there a true definition of what opera is?
If you have found a definition of “Western Opera”, it is wrong! There is no such thing as “Western Opera”. So far as I can see, the term originated from an anonymous Wikipedia contributor and has been adopted by those for whom Wikipedia is a prime source of information. Opera is an art form derived from Ancient Greece and revived in the Italian Renaissance. In essence it is a dramatic staged presentation involving representative visual and aural elements involving some or all of the following; speech, movement (action, dance), music, dramatic gesture and scenery. The notion of “Western Opera” seems to derive from a confusion over the use in Renaissance and post-Renaissance opera of “Western Music” (ie. music disseminated by means of a notational system derived in Europe during the 9th and 10th centuries) and the rise of “imitation” operas in other cultures combining traditional musical and dramatic elements with Opera (in the Greek sense). Correctly, there is Opera and its derivatives which include Peking Opera (which dates back only to the late 18th/early 19th centuries) and Carnatic Opera (which is an even more recent creation). Singing is not essential in opera, although music in one form or another is an integral element.
- What is the difference between opera and musical?
- Is there a clear line draw between opera and other forms of music?
- How has the western opera scene in Singapore evolved over the years?
As a postscript, I would add that I believe that Opera is alien to Singapore – but that is a state of affairs I regard as being neither a bad thing nor something which needs addressing. We are too small to accommodate professional opera, and those with a taste for opera now have unlimited access to performances of it - which far exceed in quality anything Singapore could ever hope to stage - through recordings and the vast resource of filmed and live transmissions from major opera houses around the world online. We do not train opera musicians here, and were we to set up an opera school, I doubt it would attract students of sufficient quality to warrant the investment required. Musically in Singapore we have our own skills which are manifest in one of the most active Western Musical scenes anywhere in south east Asia. I do not think we need to add another string to our already well-filled bow.
And as a final postscript. Can I point you in the direction of the Grand Gala Concert being staged by Singapore Lyric Opera this Friday evening at the Esplanade. I think you will find in it the best we can realistically expect from today’s Singapore opera scene – small extracts from major operas presented in a concert setting.