23 October 2019

A Potential Opera Star

For those who do not know it, Singapore has its own unique musical micro-climate.  While the rest of the world seems to be suffering falling attendances at live concerts and a perceived loss of interest in classical music, in Singapore concert audiences show a year-on-year growth, the number of live events increases several times over each year, and dedicated as well as newly-imagined performance spaces are popping up with alarming frequency.

Taking the last part.  It is worth noting that all Singapore's major performance venues (2 public concert halls with attached theatres, at least four fully-kitted-out concert halls in educational establishments, and various recital studios) were either conceived of or have been put into their present-day form since 2000, and more are in the pipeline. 

As for the first part, we can suggest that the partial cause for this exponential growth in attendance for live concerts is driven by two things which are distinctive to the Singapore scene.  Firstly the graded music exams are so ingrained into the Singapore educational psyche that a substantial proportion of young people have developed an awareness of, and interest in, classical music (over 4% of under-20s do ABRSM exams here compared with 0.86 in the UK), and, secondly, for various reasons (interesting but too complicated to go into here) neither recordings nor broadcasts are seen as a significant source of access to classical music performances.

Unfortunately, when it comes to growing number of live performances, the situation has become so chaotic as to risk becoming self-defeating,  Rather like the immediate aftermath of the deregulation of bus services in England (I would use that comparison, wouldn't I?) the emergence of so many young practical musicians on to the scene, cast out from their regular musical fix by having passed their Grade 8 (after which, in the Singapore psyche, practical music-making ceases to have any purpose) has led to an explosion of ad hoc performances put on often at a moment's notice and advertised only through sharing with friends on social media.  Thus, far too much goes by without the general public knowing anything about it.  My attempts to set up a monthly calendar on this blog typify the problem.  After posting each month's events (usually around the 20th of the preceding month) I am made aware of more than a dozen events which had not been publicly advertised anywhere that I had searched.  Uniquely, some even ask not to be publicized since the performers only want their friends and supporters to attend.

But, all in all, the climate for classical music here is very healthy. What is lacking is outstanding home-grown performers.  They will, it is hoped, emerge with time, but so far the best Singaporean musicians are pianists, conductors and violinists, and in total their numbers can be counted on the fingers of less than two hands.  What has not come to my attention so far is any truly fine Singaporean singer.  There are plenty of singers here, choirs are supported with the fanaticism of a soccer team, and there is a very big appetite for home-grown opera performances.  Yet none of these is really world-class, and none has ever made any sort of a splash on the international performing scene, even if some have achieved spectacular success in the competitive arena.

That may be about to change.

Over the weekend I attended a semi-staged performance by a local group of a Donizetti opera.  Typically, the advertising for this was so dismal that hardly anyone turned up for it (and wanting to review it, I had to call around every singer I could think of in Singapore before I was given the contact details of someone whom they thought might be involved).  Those that did witnessed a great moment in Singapore musical history; the appearance of a singer I would like to suggest has everything in place to become a true international star.  Look out for the name  Teng Xiang Ting, I think she might be going places. 
Here's my Straits Times review of the performance.
Don Pasquale

Joshua Kangming Tan (conductor)

Victoria Concert Hall

Sunday (20 October)

Marc Rochester


Just three short years into its existence, the Arts Place and its Artistic Director, Martin Ng, have achieved something remarkable.  They have presented a major opera in a performance which can only be described as outstanding.

Although this was a semi-staged, concert performance with few props, costumes or actions, so ingeniously simple was Yang Xinxin’s production that it needed nothing more in the way of visual spectacle than Aaron Yap’s seamless lighting.

The drawback of opera in a concert hall setting is that the orchestra is placed centre stage and, both visually and aurally, tends to dominate.  As it was, the assorted musicians brought together to form the orchestra for this production, were so impeccably prepared by Joshua Kangming Tan, that they very quickly blended into the production. 

The orchestral playing was unfailingly self-assured and capable, and the chorus, superbly coached by Terrence Toh, brought much humour and vitality to the opera’s third and final act.  Ensuring that everything went musically without a hitch, Tan proved once again his innate feel for opera and his instinctive sense of dramatic timing.

However, the bulk of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale rests on the four principal soloists. A fifth, a cameo role of a fake notary, was taken in Sunday’s performance by David Tao Chen Ming, who, for all the brevity of the part, invested it with real vocal and dramatic personality.

Ernesto, the lovelorn nephew, was sung by Peruvian tenor, Oscar Ruben.  He sometimes seemed strained and unconvincing, but he came into his own with a deeply affecting second act aria pouring out his sorrow after being made homeless and disinherited by his uncle.  His off-stage serenade in the third act was also a real delight.

Ernesto’s uncle, the eponymous Don, was performed by Ming-Mou Hsieh.  He certainly conveyed many facets of Pasquale’s character, at his best when tearing into the sheaves of bills detailing his wife’s unfettered spending.  But he was also at times a stiff and rigid presence on stage, and vocally he was not always able to hold his own against the orchestra.

Alvin Tan had no such problems.  He seemed utterly comfortable and at ease in the strangely ambiguous role of Malatesta, and vocally was a commanding, powerful and precise presence.  His gloriously flexible articulation in Donizetti’s hallmark patter-songs was one of the more memorable musical elements in this performance.

Without in any way diminishing the impact of the other singers, by far and away the most impressive – to an almost jaw-dropping extent – was Teng Xiang Ting.  She took to the complex character of Norina - part nun, whore, penniless widow and selfish society butterfly - with relish, switching effortlessly from one persona to the next.  Whenever Teng was on stage, she became the focal point around which everything else revolved.  Add to this a voice of stupendous strength, laser sharp focus and impeccable control, and the Arts Place may have found Singapore’s first true opera star.

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