06 November 2018

The State of Opera in Singapore

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!

  1. 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.

  1. What is the difference between opera and musical?
The growth of Opera since the Renaissance has seen various subdivisions evolve.  These include Opera Seria (tragedy), Opera Buffa (comedy), Singspiel (characters speak as well as sing) and Operetta.  This last was devised in Paris during the 19th century and was taken up with enthusiasm in late 19th /early 10th century Vienna.  Operetta focused more on visual than aural elements, with dance an integral part of this.  It also preferred to be based on humorous and light-hearted stories, or those of a serious nature treated semi-seriously.  Many of the leading Operetta composers in early 20th century Vienna were Jewish, and with the rise of Austrian Nationalist sentiments (defined by the growth of the Nazi political party) they fled mostly to the United States.  The burgeoning Hollywood movie industry had created an appetite among the domestic audience for “live” theatrical presentations which were visually spectacular and colourful (Hollywood movies were then monochrome) as well as aurally vivid (Hollywood soundtracks were limited by primitive recording and suppression techniques).  The émigré Operetta composers recognised this potential, and adapted their Operetta styles to meet the American demands for such lavish musical shows.  Broadway in New York became the theatrical homeland of these shows, which, because the emphasis lay primarily on visual and aural effect, with dancing at least equal, but often dominant to vocal elements, was no longer called Operetta, but became its own opera subdivision, Musical.

  1. Is there a clear line draw between opera and other forms of music?
Yes.  Opera combines elements, most of which are not to be found in other musical forms; for example, dramatic presentation (action, costume, scenery).  Musically, modern opera emphasises vocal prowess in solo and ensemble activity, in a way not to be found in any other musical genre.

  1. How has the western opera scene in Singapore evolved over the years?
I am conscious of a relatively active Peking Opera scene in Singapore, but beyond this Opera is basically alien to the Singapore arts scene.  Various amateur companies have attempted to create a base for Opera here – the most successful of which are the Singapore Lyric Opera and L’Arietta Opera – but none is able to sustain anything beyond an occasional performance.  There are theatres (Victoria and Esplanade) able to stage full operatic productions, and L’Arietta in particular have experimented with opera productions outside traditional theatres, so this is not the issue.  What is the issue, is the economic viability of staging opera in Singapore.  Even Hong Kong, where Western Music is far more advanced and embedded within the domestic population than in Singapore, cannot sustain professional opera companies.  Costs are inflated considerably because the expertise for staging and singing opera is found only overseas (because there is no effective training ground for such skills here), and since staging an opera is not like putting on a concert where a performance can be made viable after just a few hours’ rehearsal in situ, such skilled individuals need to be brought over for many weeks at a time.  On top of that opera requires vocal techniques few, if any, Singaporean choirs possess.  Some pocket productions (notably by L’Arietta) have encouraged Singapore composers to write mini-operas, but with the dual limitations of restricted skill sets from the performers and a demand for local interest stories from the native population, such new local operas must remain relevant only to Singapore with its tiny market for any kind of musical presentation. So, in my view, the opera scene in Singapore has not so much failed to evolve over the years as never really existed in the first place.  

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.


1 comment:

  1. As far as I can tell, the term "Western Opera" is used only in a Sinocentric context. This reminds me of food centre in Beijing that has (well had) numerous excellent stalls for different provincial cuisines: Beijing, SiChuan, Yunan, Cantonese, Mongolian, XinZhang and so on; and in the corner was a sorry looking stall marked as "Western food" with a collection of dried up beef-burgers, spagetti and half a pizza. And so with Opera from a Chinese perspective.