Three women in one role for the opera Kannagi

The titular character will be played by (from left) dancer Susan Yeung, pianist Bronwyn Gibson and soprano Akiko Otao. -- PHOTO: EDWARD TEO FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
The titular character will be played by (from left) dancer Susan Yeung, pianist Bronwyn Gibson and soprano Akiko Otao. -- PHOTO: EDWARD TEO FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Three women will play a single female character on stage in an opera based on the ancient South Indian literary epic Silapathikaram.

The entire opera will be narrated from the perspective of the titular character Kannagi, a legendary Tamil woman. She pursues justice for her falsely accused husband and takes revenge on the kingdom that murdered him.

Her role will be played by soprano Akiko Otao, 31, pianist Bronwyn Gibson, 37, and dancer Susan Yeung, 38.

By expressing the character of Kannagi through different art forms, composer John Sharpley and librettist Robert Yeo hope to convey the many facets of her personality and emotions.

The opera was first staged in 2009 at the Sri Mariamman Temple in Chinatown. It will be revived at The Arts House this week.

This is the second collaboration between Sharpley, 59, and Yeo, 74, after the inter-racial love story Fences (2012).

Sharpley says: "Every staging is a reincarnation and I wanted to see our creation grow because I want to understand and appreciate Kannagi and women further in the midst of this patriarchal world."

In 2009, the production had strong Indian cultural elements, with traditional Indian costumes and dance, and a stage set in the wedding hall of a temple.

This time, however, the opera has been "universalised" and "stripped of any specific cultural references", he says. The cast and creative team are of different races, from Japanese to American to Singaporean.

He adds: "Kannagi's story is universal. We all have trials and struggles in our lives, so how do we find freedom through them? Kannagi found a way out."

The current incarnation of the opera is more of a psychological drama focusing on the different psyches within a single character. Sharpley says the stage will be lit in shadowy, film-noir style to emphasise the physicality of the dancing, singing and piano playing.

"In each portrayal of her, there is a very different temperament that can unfold simultaneously," he says. "A good opera is made from tension and when there's one emotion inside another, it gives more depth."

In keeping with this, the opera score has arias that represent emotional points of the story, as moments that trigger the need to burst into song. Recitatives, a narrative form of song, also serve as a means of storytelling that furthers the action.

Australian-born pianist Gibson says: "One artist can represent a multiplicity of people and events in multi-dimensions. We act as Kannagi's eyes and you see her world through them."

Cheryl Mui


Book it

Kannagi

Where: The Play Den, The Arts House

When: Oct 2-5, 8pm

Admission: $25 (concession) and $30 from www.bytes.sg and at the Arts House box office (tel: 6332-6919)