Wednesday, 15 August 2012

A Few Words With ROBERT YEO, Librettist of Singapore opera FENCES

The second opera to come out of Singapore,  FENCES by JOHN SHARPLEY and ROBERT YEO, will be unveiled this weekend with two performances at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, produced by OPERA VIVA SINGAPORE and conducted by DARRELL ANG. This marks a watershed moment in Singapore musical history, which is little or no history in the conception and creation of original opera. The story is a familiar one, star-crossed lovers separated by race, religion and in the context of 1965 Singapore and Malaysia, nationality. Will love overcome bigotry and politics? Unlike Romeo and Juliet, we have been promised a happy ending, but everything in between is fair game.

Librettist of the Singapore opera FENCES
18 and 19 August 2012,
Lee Foundation Theatre, 
Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts
7.30 pm

The story of Fences of the Heart, to use the original name of the opera, came from Singapore’s “Mr Opera” Leow Siak Fah who was himself born in Malaysia and had become a Singaporean. How did you get involved as the librettist of Fences?

It was in 2004 that Siak Fah got me and composer John Sharpley together to ask if we could write an opera. He gave us the idea, the story of Steven Lee and Nora Ibrahim, and asked if we were comfortable with it and we both said “Yes”.  Next, I asked John which came first, the libretto or the music, and he said the former. That answer sealed it, and I started to think about the story and the necessary research.

Like everybody (old enough) remembers the exact day, the exact moment they learnt that President Kennedy had been assassinated in 1963, could you remember exactly what you were doing on 9 August 1965, and how you felt at that time?

On 9 August 1965, two colleagues and I, three Chinese schoolteachers from St Andrew's Secondary School had driven up to Kuala Lumpur in the morning en route to the east coast of Malaya for a holiday. We spent the night in the federal capital and the next morning, we went to visit a friend of mine who managed a bookshop within sight of Pudu Prison. I bantered with him about KL-Singapore relationship which had become fractious, and then he asked, anxiously, “You mean you don't know?” Then he pulled out a copy of the New Straits Times, and the front page headline read, “Singapore is Out.” That was the moment we know that Singapore had separated from Malaysia. All three of us returned home, aborting our planned vacation.

The story of Fences has to do with differences (racial, cultural, socio-economic), separation (physical, emotional, real or imagined), reconciliation and rationalisation. How did you craft your libretto to encompass all these complex and highly contentious issues?

I think my experience writing poems and plays helped a great deal. Though the story, with its Romeo and Juliet parallel appeared clich√©d, it sounded real to me. Anyway, I had always wanted to write about the years when Singapore was part of Malaysia and here was an opportunity to write about very traumatic events which suddenly created a new nation. So, in addition to being “caught” in the turmoil, which provided the raw experience, I researched by listening to operas, reading libretti, books and articles.  Among the operas I watched  were Bizet’s Carmen and Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw.  One book, in particular, was very useful - A Moment Of Anguish by Albert Lau.

I figured, in a foolhardy way, that as I have written poems and plays, I could try my hand at writing a libretto. I was emboldened by two examples. First, I had worked on writing the text for a musical with Joe Peters (yet to be staged), and second, one of my favourite poets, W.H Auden, had written libretti and worked with composers like Benjamin Britten. In writing Fences, I want to be poetic and concrete. There will be no pop sentiments and abstractions like, “I cannot live without you.” Instead, I loaded my lines with concrete images and tough emotion. When Nora, the Malay heroine from Kuala Lumpur first meets Steven, the Chinese boy from Singapore, she teases him with the line, “You have waiting in your eyes,” where an abstraction like waiting is qualified by the specific reference to Steven's eyes. When Steven condemns race as divisive, he sings, “What is this stench called race?” The choruses are equally uncompromising, for example the first Malaya chorus has these lines,

   We must deal with this Singapore problem
   The island south that's like a footsore.
   We can't have it infect our body
   If it turns red outside our door.

I must add that my collaboration with John has been very process-oriented. We talked all the time he was composing, both making many revisions, as we went along over four years of writing. And we did it harmoniously.

Were the characters in the opera modelled after personalities you knew or could identify with? How did you make them come across sympathetic rather than the usual cardboard stereotypes that operas all too frequently portray?

No, they are not modelled after people I know. As a secular person, a believer in multiculturalism, these values inherent in the beliefs would inevitably find their ways into my words. If I made the fathers in Fences villains, I was, in a sense following Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, in which the patriarchs Capulet and Montague are dominant. The mothers are not heard and so I decided to give them voice, sympathetic to the lovers.

The moral of the story: Love Conquers All. Is life that straight-forward or black and white for you?

Love conquers all is never straightforward. After the conquest, it may remain lovely—or loveless. But that is another story.

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