The Opera People's Penelope - more than just the wife who waited

Penelope, by The Opera People, is a retelling of the story of Odysseus' wife, who waits 20 years for him to return from the Trojan War. PHOTO: THE OPERA PEOPLE/FACEBOOK

SINGAPORE - In Greek mythology, Penelope is painted as the perfect wife who patiently waits 20 years for her husband Odysseus' return from the Trojan War. Her strength as the queen of Ithaca in her husband's absence is, at best, subtly alluded to.

In an unusual double bill by The Opera People, opera meets classical music in a radical retelling of Penelope's story. It is the arts company's first collaboration with the newly formed Wayfarer Sinfonietta, led by music director Lien Boon Hua.

Penelope combines German-American composer Andre Previn's dramatic cantata of the same name with English composer Benjamin Britten's masterpiece Les Illuminations, a song cycle written and premiered in 1939.

The performance will be the international premiere of the work outside the United States. It was Previn's final work - he died in 2019, leaving it unfinished. It was later completed by composer David Fetherolf.

Three women - Koh Wan Ching as the narrator, Teng Xiang Ting as the soprano for Previn and Felicia Teo Kaixin as the soprano for Britten - take centre stage.

The Singapore work was conceived by director Edith Podesta and The Opera People's co-artistic director and company manager Shridar Mani, who see Britten's work as an "alter ego" to Previn's.

Podesta, 42, says: "I see the three women as different parts of the same woman, Penelope. We're in a liminal space. Koh represents her mind, Teng symbolises her heart and Teo, her body."

"Myths give us freedom and flexibility when discussing the issues of today," Mr Mani, 34, says. "I think this incredible fluidity is why we are still so fascinated by myths, why every generation still tells them to the next generation."

Podesta adds: "They also bring us closer to each other. We return to myths in an attempt to make sense of the world now and to find solace."

Podesta's 2018 play Leda And The Rage, which also drew on Greek myth, won Production of the Year at The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards. She notes that Penelope is her first retold myth where there is no male figure onstage.

"I think having female bodies on stage as an embodiment of the female story is very important," she says. "Having women advocating for themselves is very important in this day and age.

"The woman can be the head of the household. She can take on a role apart from those which are culturally sanctioned."

Cast members rehearsing for Penelope at the Victoria Theatre Dance Studio on Dec 23, 2021. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

After Penelope, The Opera People's 2022 season will explore the narratives of two more women from myth: Ariadne, the princess in the tale of Theseus And The Minotaur, and Lucretia, an ancient Roman noblewoman raped by the king's son, Sextus Tarquinius.

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Where: Esplanade Annexe Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive
When: Jan 14 and 15, 7.30pm; Jan 16, 5pm
Admission: $15 for restricted view, $35 for unrestricted view, from the Peatix site.

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