LIM YAU &
THE SINGAPORE LYRIC OPERA:
THE EARLY YEARS
Twenty years of the Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO) was no mean feat, however its anniversary celebrations had one glaring absentee, - Lim Yau, who was its long-time artistic director from its earliest days till 2000. He was not even in the audience at the 26 November Gala Concert to join in the revelry.
PIANOMANIA caught up with him at his new Seletar Hills home, where he nostalgically spoke about the younger and more innocent days of the SLO.
The Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO) was formed in 1990 as the Singapore Lyric Theatre (SLT), which had its origins within the National University of Singapore Society (NUSS) prior to that. What was your earliest involvement with that fledgling opera community in Singapore?
After I was appointed Assistant Conductor of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) in 1985, I was approached by a gentleman whom I often noticed attending post–concert receptions, one with “a man about town” kind of appearance. One day after an orchestral rehearsal, I was whisked off to the Guild House in Kent Ridge for a meeting with a committee chaired by this gentleman. He was Leow Siak Fah (left), a successful businessman whose resourcefulness and entrepreneurial skills knew little bounds. The committee also included Toh Weng Cheong (the present SLO Chairman), the late Mrs Winnie Cheah and a few others. They were a group of opera lovers from the National University of Singapore Society Recreation Committee who wanted to stage their own operas and musicals, and they had asked me to conduct their productions. Being so persuasive, how could I say no?
What do you remember about the earliest opera productions?
The first production by this NUSS group, in 1985, was Johann Strauss the Younger’s Die Fledermaus, sung in English. Leow would take the lead tenor role of Eisenstein, as he would do for many further productions, and Rosalinde was sung by Lee Soo Bee, then a well-known local soprano. There were parts for the young baritone Eng Meng Chia, a voice student studying overseas at the time, and Alex Abisheganaden (left) who sang the part of Frank, the prison governor. And the non-singing part of Frosch was played by a popular Malaysian actor whose name I cannot remember.
Just to emphasise the humble beginnings of the opera company that had yet to get its name, there were many unpaid volunteers. For example, the wonderful Mrs Winnie Cheah and Mrs Ling, Leow’s mother-in-law, both lovely Peranakan ladies, sewed all the costumes. I conducted the opera without a fee, and was even asked to pay for my wife’s ticket. Managing on an extremely tight budget was nothing new, as it still is today.
The next production in 1987 was of Verdi’s La Traviata, also sung in English, which introduced the young baritone William Lim (left) – still one of Singapore’s most active singers - as the older Germont. Lehar’s The Land of Smiles soon followed in 1988 and by 1990, the group attempted its most ambitious production, Bizet’s Carmen at Kallang Theatre. Leow, as expected, sang in all the tenor roles, but he also underwrote all the bills. By this time, the committee thought it ripe to formally register as an opera company. Thus the Singapore Lyric Theatre was born, and its first formal production under its aegis was Mozart’s The Magic Flute in 1991.
As founding director, what were some of your responsibilities like?
In consultation with the company’s board, I helped to determine which operas we were to produce. After the first few productions, we decided to expand the company’s repertoire. In 1992, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville was produced, followed by Verdi’s Rigoletto in 1993, one that was set in 1920s Shanghai. Leow did return, to sing Prince Danilo in Lehar’s The Merry Widow in 1992, opposite Marilyn Hill-Smith. The year 1994 saw the SLO debut of soprano Nancy Yuen (left) in her signature role of Cio Cio San in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. I had to audition singers for various parts. I remembered having to travel to Japan and South Korea for the Barber production. It was only in 1997, after resigning from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, that I assumed the post of Music Director, a full-time paying job.
You also conducted different orchestras for SLO productions.
The orchestra for the initial productions were formed by members of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. SSO was engaged to perform for several productions but involving Singapore’s only professional orchestra invariably incurred a huge cost. In 1996, the production of Gounod’s Faust in the Singapore Arts Festival (starring Warren Mok as Faust and Tian Hao Jiang as Mephistopheles) saw us collaborating with the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus. Flying them in and housing them for the entire duration of the production proved a smaller expense than hiring the SSO itself. I received a lot of flak from my then-employers (SSO) for making that happen. In 1998, I formed the company’s own in-house orchestra, the NUSS-SLT Singapore Opera Orchestra, one dedicated to accompanying opera. [The nucleus of this orchestra later became The Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra (TPCO) and The Philharmonic Orchestra (TPO). The present SLO Orchestra, a free-lance outfit, came much later.]
Which were some of your most memorable experiences?
Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in collaboration with The British Council in 1997, was our all-round best production. That same year, we undertook Leong Yoon Pin’s Bunga Mawar (left) for the Festival of Asian Performing Arts, the first ever Singaporean opera. It was important that such an endeavour could take place, if only to highlight the state of the arts in Singapore at the time. It was Leong’s first opera and poet laureate Edwin Thumboo’s first libretto, and directed by veteran Chinese theatre director Chua Soo Pong. It was not a great success but it had to be done sometime.
In 1995, one of the board members Robert Tomlin offered to bring in a major tenor soloist for Cavaradossi in SLO’s first production of Puccini’s Tosca. We got Giacomo Aragall (left), arguably one of the ten great tenors of the 20th century for the part. I learnt a lot about conducting opera and accompanying singers from his vast experience, including observing singers, their phrasing and breathing patterns.
Then 58 years old, Aragall was a very nervous personality, one who often hid in his dressing room, coming out only at the very last moment to rehearse. He did pull of one of the best pranks at one rehearsal. In the final scene when Cavaradossi gets shot by the firing squad, he laid for a prolonged period on the stage floor and started adjusting his pants such that a huge bulge appeared on his supine form. Then he said, “That’s how you die cock standing!” Everybody almost died laughing!