Thursday, 26 August 2010

THE MAD SCENE is 3 years old! An interview with STEVEN ANG, Founder of Singapore's only Opera Blog

On 1 September, Singapore's only opera blog The Mad Scene turns three years old!
You may find it at: Its creator STEVEN ANG, now a voice student in Taipei shares with us his passion for the voice and writing about it!

Q: When and how did you come up with the idea of creating a blog about the opera scene in Singapore?

The blog was started in September 2007. At that time, I had written quite a few articles for The Flying Inkpot for a number of years under Derek Lim’s leadership. It was all rather fun, public response was good and of course we enjoyed getting free tickets and CDs. Unfortunately we were unable to update the site regularly due to our increasing work commitments. The formatting required for maintaining a traditional website was also very time consuming.

One of my favourite websites to visit was Parterre Box ( and Opera Chic (, blogs about opera in New York and Milan respectively, which report as well as make fun of the latest opera news and the people behind them. So I thought, wouldn’t it be great if Singapore has something like this?

That’s not to say that The Mad Scene is in any way like the two popular blogs above. Ultimately my aim is to provide magazine content for local music enthusiasts, and using a blog format makes the technical side of things much easier to handle, leaving me with more time to worry about content. Also with a blog format readers can expect posts that are more informal, less structured than would a traditional magazine format. And so with the help of a few friends, we managed to build this website and get it started.

Q: How did you come to adopt The Mad Scene as the title?

Oh i have to come clean and admit that title The Mad Scene is not really my idea. Basically the idea to start a blog was made between myself and 3 other friends; the four of us would often meet for dinner and talk about our favourite sopranos and discuss who had the better high e-flat, so we thought why not put it down on a blog for all to see?

We then ran through a few names; some of them include sedizio se voci (sedicious voices), the first line of Norma’s entrance scene, but that idea was scraped because is probably too much of a mouthful for casual lovers to handle. Another idea was “Fiordiligi and Dorebella”, because it was supposed to be two main writers writing behind fictitious personas. That wasn’t good either because firstly my partner doesn’t like Mozart operas, and secondly, I’m too much of a fame whore to hide behind an alias.

So going by our common love for sopranos who sing lots of high notes before dying tragically, my friend Justin came up with The Mad Scene. It was the perfect name for us: it aptly describes our passion for the art, the intended tongue-in-cheek writing style, and the sometimes ridiculousness situations that the performers and storylines can get into. And so a blog was born! Not only did Justin come up with the name, he also designed the collage of mad sopranos as well as its updated version that you see on the new site. Now that the blog has some regular following, the name has proven to be such a good fit for the site as well as my own personal branding. If you ever need any design work done, send me an email and I will refer you to him.

Q: Tell us a little about your background as a singer, musician and music lover.

Well I have been making the rounds as an amateur singer and performer for some time, hence my appreciation for opera. In my poly days I did an experimental theatre called When Will I See Sky, about the live of Indonesian writer and political prisoner Promedeya Anant Toer. I had wanted to do musicals and made the rounds of auditions, yet somehow this became the first play I’d ever done. I’ve also joined the Echo Philharmonic Society then and did my first two performances of the Xian Xing-Hai’s Yellow River Cantata under Maestro Yan Liang-Kun, a student of the composer and widely regarded as the Karajan of China. I stayed with the choir for a number of years after National Service, making it my artistic home and therefore my performances are mostly with the Chinese-educated group. I love Chinese repertoire very much, but their limited tastes can get frustrating at times. When I joined the Singapore Symphony Chorus, I felt that my musical education is finally on track. It was such a thrill being able to sing with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

At that time, I was sending out applications for some conservatories, thinking about just trying them out. Never did I think that I would be accepted by the prestigious Soochow University (東吳大學). Going to Taiwan would be beneficial in so many ways: being able to study music full-time instead of juggling a full-time job, getting to explore my beloved Chinese repertoire, and working in a scene that while not the traditional centres of classical music (such as Europe or USA) does have a more advanced music education that here. Plus the fees are much cheaper! And so I packed my bags and never looked back.

Its heartening to see that there are so many opportunities for younger singers now, whether for amateurs or students looking at making a career, what with the local conservatory and School of The Arts taking off, Singapore Lyric Opera productions getting bigger than before, and theatre productions and Integrated Resorts looking for live entertainers where having a solid classical technique would surely be beneficial (these opportunities at my time or were either not available during my time or my pragmatic parents preferred a sit-in-office career, but I’m not bitter!) I’m trying not to try out for these performing jobs yet until such a time when I feel my voice is ready for them, so you probably won’t see me onstage that soon. Until then, do keep a lookout for my “big début”!

Q: You are among a number of writers about music in Singapore who began their journalistic exploits with The Flying Inkpot. How has that experience influenced your present activity in The Mad Scene?

Gosh the experience with Inkpot was great in so many ways! Firstly having my writing published in public for the very first time was such a thrill for a then National Service boy trapped in camp. Getting free tickets and CDs were great also for a broke NSF. Also the experience of simply writing one article after another helped polish-up my basics (with special indulgence from my editors…) and helped me develop my writing style into what you see today. I’ve also included my Inkpot experience in my resume post-NS which landed me a job as a copy-writer-cum-account-executive. Lastly, I wouldn’t have gotten to interview Renée Fleming during her stint in Singapore, if not for Inkpot!

Q: How many articles or posts have you registered in three years of The Mad Scene?

Many many, though not all of them are full articles. Part of the beauty of using a blog format is that you can put up even the most whimsical of topics, such as Renée’s early attempts at interviewing fellow sopranos, and how closely the greatly-hyped Michael Phelp’s Beijing Olympics’s swimwear (the Speedo LZR) resembles one of Cher’s trademark costumes. So if I were to tally up: 1,213 in the old site plus 26 on the new site, that adds up to 1,239 posts.

Steven with The Beautiful Voice Renée Fleming

Q: Interviews form an important part of your content. What were some of your more memorable interviews with singers? And why?

Of the ones I did recently, I had a lot of fun conducting the one with Tai Hsiao-Chun, SLO’s recent Queen of the Night. I had just seen her Lucia di Lammermoor in Taipei, so our discussion was pretty much revolved around our favourite soprano roles and their high notes and the singers who take them on. Also as a Singaporean living abroad, I got to brag about what a wonderful company we have (many will surely disagree but let’s not take things for granted…), and assuring her that she’ll surely do a comparably much better job coming after the horrorific Olympia at our Tales of Hoffmann.

As for earlier interviews, my Inkpot interview with Renée Fleming was great for obvious reasons; it was actually a press conference with reps from more established papers but it was only Derek and I asking all the questions, of which the rest understood neither the questions nor the answers.


My article about interviewing Kiri te Kanawa and Frederica von Stade for the Singapore Sun Festival is also one of my personal favourites: I wonder how they became such good friends with such different personalities; one being cold where the other is effusively warm. I had to take a few hours off work to attend the Sun Festival opening press conference, but the picture I took of Kiri dozing-off while their ex-chairman Barrett Wissman was making his opening speech was totally worth it!

Then there was the time earlier this year when my 2008 interview with Jeong Ae Ree received over 4,000 visitors in a week, due to that incident with that Romanian diplomat. Now as a website owner can’t help but be thrilled that my work is receiving such attention, despite the negative cause of it. But I’m grateful that through this interview and Ae Ree’s clarification at the time, the general public who won’t otherwise know of her as a performer could see that here is an artist who is serious about her work and her students, and not an attention seeker that could have been their first impression. It was heartening when her supporters posted messages of goodwill in the comments, though I had to play censor when some of the more ruthless gossips posted some really malicious messages. (

A culmination of the Singapore choral music scene:
the 2004 performance of Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand.

Q: Vocal music has a following in Singapore, but somewhat lags behind that of orchestral music and instrumental music eg. piano. Why do you think that is so?

Hmm… I haven’t really done such an observation to necessarily agree with you. In the Chinese-educated circle that I perform in, the Singapore Choral Association has about 100 choirs under its wing, each staging at least 2 performances a year, that amounts to about 200 concerts annually, not withstanding their annual choral festival, solo recitals by their teacher-conductors and competitions. So that’s already plenty of activity!

Perhaps then that the vocal scene can seem small because, unlike instrumentalists, language and taste play a big factor when engaging audiences and deciding programs. Coming from the previous generation where the majority Chinese population is so clearly segregated into English and Chinese speakers, their respective cultural programs are thus promoted through completely different sources. So I wouldn’t say that it lags behind the instrumentalists, just that our overall the profile is more fragmented. For those of us in the younger generation who can straddle the big divide, this is actually a good thing as it leads to a wider variety of music and talents to be experienced.

But assuming that vocal music does lag behind the instrumentalists, one should consider that the voice is an instrument of a very different nature. An enthusiastic singer has many options that would be closed for an instrumentalist, such as a capella groups, musical theatre, bands and pop music. Thus the percentage of singers who would join traditional classical formats such as choirs or learning lieder and arias is smaller. A violinist with some training might perform solo with a pianist, in a quartet or an orchestra, but opportunities to cross-over would be limited due to the different instruments used in other genres.

Lastly, opera with all its adult themes and passions, would probably be appreciated more by adults or at best mature teenagers. Some of these new fans may then choose to become singers themselves after pursuing a more ‘practical’ course of study or work. Instrumentalists however can be trained at a very early age, so its probably easier to find instrumental performers than vocal ones. In my conservatory, the instrumentalists are mostly of school-going age while singers can come in at any age level, we even have some retired bosses in the masters program!

Q: How would you describe the vocal, choral and opera scene in Singapore today? And what further progress do you expect in the years to come?

I’ll say it’s growing at a very exciting pace. Just the past two weeks I’ve attended no less than 4 concerts. The SLO, while sticking with traditional repertoire, has expanded its operations to such a large scale that it is such a far cry from their Victoria Theatre days. Their productions will always remain the heart of a voice lover’s live music experience. Meanwhile, the SSO’s offerings of large-scale choral works seem to have increased with very interesting programs, aided by the excellent SSC and their assisting choirs; the Hallelujah Oratorio Society is another group that I always love to hear.

Meanwhile many of my fellow amateurs ten years ago while we are teens are returning with high grades and professional experience from their European and American conservatories, so maybe we will soon get to see one of our own leading an opera on our global stage! Meanwhile, the influx of foreign talents coming to learn or teach in our conservatories means that we have many more great performers and concerts to enjoy.

With the opening of the Esplanade many years ago and now with the IRs, our previously staid government (the same one that banned Kitaro from performing due to his refusal to cut his trademark long hair) is finally recognising the need to make Singapore a more fun and exciting place to live in, and that I think this is the mindset we need for a more vibrant arts scene.
The iconic original iconic banner of The Mad Scene,
recently replaced in 2010.

Q: What do you think is the most important role of The Mad Scene within the context of the Singapore music scene?

This question is probably best asked to a long-time reader or one of the many performers I’ve interviewed, but I’ll give it a shot!

As a regular concert-goer for many years, I’m often puzzled by the lack of support performing groups have for each other’s work. Many times I would ask a fellow singer if he had attended so-and-so’s performance only to be told that he has never even heard of such an event. The mainstream media understandably only covers the big acts, and while there are many avenues for reviews (such as your fine blog and the newly revived Inkpot), these articles are mostly in hindsight; that is the publicity comes only after the performance is over. I thought wouldn’t it be great if there is an avenue that could publicise these events BEFORE they actually happen? It’s great if you can afford the services of SISTIC and newspaper ads, but for the smaller groups and soloists, I hope that I can help to bring more attention to their efforts.

So this is really what I hope The Mad Scene can help to achieve. And to do so I want to go beyond the standard introductions that can be found on posters and flyers. I want to introduce to fellow music lovers the personalities behind the music, both the movers-and-shakers and the up-and-comers, who are working hard to bring our unique brand of entertainment to you. Never mind that most of them have yet to make their Met debuts, they are the ones we have, they are good in their own right, so they deserve your support. I hope my work on The Mad Scene has helped to achieve this end. While it can get tiring running the site for the past 3 years, the feedback and thanks that I’ve received lead me to believe that it is a worthwhile contribution to this segment of the artistic community.
Here is the how you reach The Mad Scene:

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