Monday, 29 July 2013



New Opera Singapore
SOTA Drama Theatre
Friday & Saturday (26 & 27 July 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 29 July 2013 with the title "Baroque breakthrough".

Given that Singapore has no tradition of performing Baroque opera, it was a massive leap of faith by New Opera Singapore to attempt English composer Henry Purcell’s classic Dido and Aeneas, rather than yet another version of La Traviata. It is this spirit of adventure and experimentation that makes the company founded by Korean soprano Jeong Ae Ree (right) relevant and vitally necessary.

The cumbersome title My Nights with Dido and My Days with Aeneas may have confused some. Virgil’s Dido and Aeneas was a classical tragedy where Love and Fate conspired to clash with disastrous results. Updating the setting to modern newly-weds settling in their HDB apartment  with Ikea bags and kaypoh neighbours might also have given the mistaken impression this was another of the company’s opera comique farces. Thus the realisation that this was opera seria (serious opera) came rather late in the evening.

Whoever thought that the Brit Purcell
could blend so well with the Yank Ives?

As the original opera lasts under one hour, this production was padded up to about 100 minutes with songs by the 20th century American composer Charles Ives. This was an inspired stroke of juxtaposition and innovation by director Mathias Behrends, even if the words alternated between old and modern poetic English (and in one song, French). While the musical accompaniment segued from the orchestra conducted by Chan Wei Shing to a barely-in-tune piano valiantly mustered by Thomas Ang, the transitions were almost seamless.

As some singers were unused to the Baroque style of singing, there was going to be a struggle to adapt. It was not a surprise that some of the Ives songs and choruses came off better than the Purcell. There were parts when the production resembled a high school musical, something out of the School of the Arts perhaps. However New Opera Singapore is our nation’s de facto opera school, as none of the tertiary institutions of musical education have opera programmes in place. So if there are going to be trials and errors, this is probably the best place to begin.   

The pivotal aria, Dido's When I Am Laid In Earth.
Teng Xiang Ting's Dido is foiled in numerous suicide attempts.

New Opera’s A-list cast, past and present students of Jeong, stole the show. Soprano Teng Xiang Ting (left) as Dido, was the face of ultimate pathos, and a force to be reckoned with. Her final aria, When I Am Laid in Earth, evinced so much sympathy that it stood out as the evening’s finest and most gut-wrenching moment. Opposite her, the Sorceress sung by mezzo Rebecca Chellappah was a most natural and experienced hand, exuding a malevolent charm that was wholly apt.

The supernatural forces of Lim Yanting and Moira Loh
haunt Teng Xiang Ting's Dido.

This opera, first performed in 1688 at Josiah Priest’s Girl’s School in Chelsea, was to be a girl’s night out. Soprano Rebecca Li was supportive as Belinda, Dido’s BFF, while Thai Lehlin, Moira Loh and Lim Yanting hovered around adding mischievous spice (including what must be the first-ever getai and lesbian scenes portrayed on the local operatic stage). Even the women in the boisterous choir of busybodies were the driving force. The men, David Tay’s Aeneas, Jonathan Tay’s sailor and Shaun Lee’s spirit cum solicitor, shone in their numbers but seemed almost peripheral. Do not blame them; their unintentional “bad guy” parts never had much of a chance.

The tone of this review may read like something of a qualified success, but that should not impede New Opera Singapore from further exploring uncharted territories of opera, and pushing the envelope with its own brand of guts and gumption. Singapore’s meagre and all-too-predictable opera scene really needs that kind of spark.

Production photographs by Eugene Soh.

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