Singapore International Festival of Music
Play Den, The Arts House/Last Saturday
The final evening of the Singapore International Festival of Music was reserved for just one work, Russian composer Grigory Frid's 1968 chamber opera The Diary Of Anne Frank. The subject of a teenaged Jewish girl's plight (and that of her people) during the horrors of World War II needs little introduction. The hour-long opera in 21 short scenes for soprano and nine instrumentalists drew on excerpts of her preserved writings and made absolutely absorbing drama.
The darkened Play Den was a perfect setting for the secret annexe of the Franks, claustrophobic and intimate, sparsely filled with just a writing desk, bed and a small pile of books. The musicians conducted by Marlon Chen were tucked at one end where their important but unobstrusive presence laid the foundation for Japanese soprano Akiko Otao's one-woman tour de force.
No stranger to the stage, Otao has already helmed important parts in John Sharpley's Fences and Kannagi. This even more exposed role was to top them all. For all her girlish charm, her portrayal of 13-year-old Annelies was a multi-faceted one. Her identification with the personality was complete, encompassing all her fears and anxieties, hopes and dreams, and ultimately her humanity in the face of extreme duress.
Samantha Scott-Blackhall's direction was also spot-on, enabling Otao to be the riveting centre of attention from start to finish. The singing part was devilishly difficult, atonal for most part and with the sprech-gesang (speech-song) technique of Schoenberg's Second Viennese School as the narrative. This was greatly aided by the projected texts on the walls and precision timing from both singer and musicians.
There were many young people, including children, in the audience, and it was not difficult for them to follow the thread of Frank's thoughts. From the joy of receiving a birthday gift, the terror of hearing knocks on the door, the onset of infatuation with a boy, to a hope of seeing the world in the open again, this was the essence of life itself. There was even a brief spot for humour, in the squabbling of the Van Daans, which was accompanied by jazzy strains.
The festival's programme notes makes one glaring error. Anne Frank died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945, one of six million Holocaust victims, and not in Amsterdam. Amid all of this tragedy, it is amazing that she maintained her faith in God. If she were still alive (and she would have been 86 this year), what would she have thought of our world today?