Founding chairman of Singapore Lyric Opera Leow Siak Fah dies

Founding chairman of the Singapore Lyric Opera, Mr Leow Siak Fah, died on Tuesday in Germany, where he was seeking treatment for an undisclosed illness. He would have been 76 this year.

An accomplished businessman and trained lawyer, the former chairman of the service industry-oriented Citystate Group was also a talented opera singer.

He had sung roles in Singapore Lyric Theatre productions as varied as the good-humoured Jewish patriarch Tevye from the musical Fiddler On The Roof (1999) and ardent lover Don Jose in Bizet's opera Carmen (1998). The professional arts company was renamed the Singapore Lyric Opera in 1999.

The company released a statement on Thursday by its current chairman, Mr Toh Weng Cheong. He said: "Mr Leow was instrumental in laying the foundation for opera productions in Singapore way back in 1985.

"We are truly indebted to him. The Singapore Lyric Opera and the larger operatic community shall miss him dearly."

Mr Leow is survived by his wife, Dr Ling Ai Ee, a son, a daughter and their spouses.

The eldest of four children, he was born in Kuala Lumpur in 1939 and enrolled in the National University of Singapore Law Faculty in 1966.

He became a permanent resident here in 1977 and set up the Singapore Lyric Theatre in 1990. The company grew out of a group of opera aficionados who staged a production under the National University of Singapore Society, an alumni club.

Poet, playwright and co-founder of seven-year-old opera company OperaViva, Robert Yeo, says of Mr Leow: "It is difficult to compress his accomplishments in one sentence, but I will try: Leow Siak Fah gave Western opera to Singapore."

Mr Leow commissioned two home-grown operas, Bunga Mawar (1997) by Leong Yoon Pin and Edwin Thumboo, and Fences (2012) by Yeo and John Sharpley.

Life!'s freelance classical reviewer Chang Tou Liang says: "For a generation of people growing up in Singapore which had no tradition of Western opera, during the 1980s and 1990s, Mr Leow Siak Fah was Mr Opera himself.

"He was an amateur tenor who had big ambitions for opera in Singapore. He single-handedly cajoled and bankrolled opera and operetta productions here."

Lim Yau, dean at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts School of Music, worked closely with Mr Leow as he was appointed music director of the Singapore Lyric Theatre in 1998.

He says: "Siak Fah was a rare businessman who dared to dream big, especially in opera. It was a privilege to have worked with him during the first decade of the Singapore Lyric Opera, possibly the first golden period of opera in Singapore. I learnt tremendously from him."

Baritone William Lim, who has sung in many Lyric Opera productions, says that he will remember Mr Leow as someone who loved music very much, and singing in particular.

He adds that he will miss the company founder's sense of humour.

Lim recalls: "I remember that at one of his birthday parties, many years ago, he wanted me to sing Some Enchanted Evening from the musical South Pacific, but even though I had sung it many times, I could never get some of the verses correct.

"So when I was singing, he came and sat in front of me, mouthing the correct words. He had that sort of humour."

lting@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Akshita Nanda