Opera takes centrestage in Singapore

The art form is taking it up a notch with a crowded season in store and a greater focus on training young singers

After a long wait in the wings, opera has returned to the spotlight in Singapore. Singers are stepping up to start new troupes while old stalwart, Singapore Lyric Opera, is reinventing itself to groom young talent.

This year's calendar is crowded, after two decades when the opera season meant a couple of classic productions from Singapore Lyric Opera and little else.

There is New Opera Singapore's Orpheus In The Underworld at Victoria Theatre this week, which offers a comic twist on an ancient Greek legend.

The troupe led by soprano Jeong Ae Ree has performed one full- length production a year since 2012, as well as smaller operas such as Donizetti's Rita in April.

Next month, Singapore Lyric Opera presents Puccini's Turandot at the Esplanade Theatre, a costume spectacle and crowd favourite about a Chinese princess who kills suitors who fail to answer her riddles.

In October, all eyes will be on OperaViva, a company set up in 2009 by Singapore Lyric Opera founder Leow Siak Fah to produce baroque and contemporary opera.

After seven low-key years focused on pushing two operas written and composed in Singapore, OperaViva will co-produce a half-a-million-dollar staging of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman at Victoria Theatre.

Early November will see a round of chamber operas from the newly formed L'arietta Productions.

Led by Singaporean tenor Reuben Lai and Japanese soprano Akiko Otao, the ensemble promotes operas which require smaller groups of musicians - chamber ensembles - rather than orchestras of 70 or more.

In March, the group made its debut with three operas about window shopping, playing cards and castaways performed in one hour. November's production will comprise another three short comedies, including one set during a zombie apocalypse.

While not as impressive as the opera season in Milan or Zurich, this is a renaissance for an art form that struggles to thrive in Asia.

No national company specialises in Western opera in Taiwan or Malaysia. In Bangkok, the Bangkok Opera Foundation started by novelist Somtow Sucharitkul survives because it enjoys royal patronage.

Opera's main problems are image and financing, say singers and musicians.

Dr Jessica Chen Hsing An, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts' head of vocal studies since 2013, says: "Opera costs a lot. It's almost impossible that you can earn money producing opera."

Budget has been the stumbling block for Singapore Lyric Opera, which was set up by the late Mr Leow in 1990 as Singapore Lyric Theatre. He had aimed to make opera an integral part of Singapore's cultural scene. But a decade in, costs had gone up and sponsors remained shy.

According to the company's chairman, Mr Toh Weng Cheong, 75, it takes about $700,000 to stage an opera in Singapore. The annual budget of Singapore Lyric Opera is about $1.6 million and covers two operas, a fund-raising gala and outreach concerts such as the annual Opera In The Park concert at the Botanic Gardens.

He says: "We lose about $200,000 a production, after factoring in ticket sales and production cost."

People think opera is boring and old-fashioned, so few wait in line for tickets.

Soprano Nancy Yuen, Singapore Lyric Opera's honorary artistic director since August last year, says: "Most people have this fear of not understanding the language."

Many popular operas are performed in Italian or some other European language.

Opera needs better publicity, says Mr Toh. "If you go to a musical, you'll go away humming two or three lines. Only a few opera songs have made their way into popular culture, such as Nessun Dorma from Turandot, and that's because of football."

The late, great tenor Luciano Pavarotti sang Nessun Dorma for the 1990 World Cup and made it a global hit.

To sell tickets, Singapore Lyric Opera has had to concentrate on big-name productions and hiring overseas artists.

While established home-grown singers such as Yuen or Lai still sing major parts, there were, until recently, few places open for younger singers. This, in turn, suppressed the development of an opera culture here.

According to the heads of vocal studies at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, voices take time to mature.

The conservatory's Dr Alan Bennett, a lyric tenor, says a four- year bachelor's programme is not enough to prepare most students for an operatic career.

According to Dr Chen, years more of training are needed to improve diction, vocal tone and acting ability.

More trained singers, larger works

The 49-year-old built her professional career in the decade between doing her master's and a doctorate of musical arts in voice performance at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"At the start, you may be engaged for a very small supporting role, three hours of rehearsal for 10 minutes on stage. You have to learn from more experienced singers," she says.

An infrastructure of ensembles, trainers, musicians and conductors is required to support young singers, which makes it difficult to train vocal talent in Singapore beyond a certain level.

The gap has been slightly lessened by troupes such as New Opera Singapore or L'arietta Productions. These hold open auditions and perform smaller operas, often on a shoestring budget.

New Opera Singapore is behind the careers of younger singers such as tenor Jonathan Charles Tay. The 31-year-old is the troupe's artist- in-residence and will sing the role of Orpheus this week. His identical twin David is the troupe's executive manager.

The twins were taught by the troupe's founder Jeong, netted places at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music and returned to make their careers in Singapore.

Jonathan says: "Growing up here, I never watched a single opera, but now I love it. It's singing and performing at the highest level. The music can be tough, but it's acting, it's drama, it's everything."

There appears to be little competition among opera troupes for now, with Singapore Lyric Opera's Yuen taking on the lead role in one show of OperaViva's The Flying Dutchman, and L'arietta Productions' Otao singing for New Opera Singapore.

In April, Singapore Lyric Opera launched a Young Artists Programme in memory of its founder, who died last year.

Singers Jeremy Koh and Teo Kai Xin are being trained by Yuen, Dr Bennett and Dr Chen and receiving exposure at the company's events, such as Opera In The Park in June.

Yuen says training younger singers is key to the growth of opera here. More trained singers will make it easier to stage larger works.

"You need a chorus of 60 for Turandot. While there are many good voices here, there are not many good performers. You need that experience of being on stage," she says.

"There are all these companies starting to do opera, which is great. It will generate interest in opera."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 26, 2016, with the headline 'All pumped up for opera'. Print Edition | Subscribe