Singapore International Festival of Arts brings back the buzz

The arts festival injects new life with $10 student tickets, a festival village vibe and a line-up that features a YouTube music act alongside classic theatre

Octavia E. Butler's Parable Of The Sower is an operatic adaptation of the dystopian novel, with musicians using gospel, soul, blues and funk music to tell the story of a gifted outsider.
Octavia E. Butler's Parable Of The Sower is an operatic adaptation of the dystopian novel, with musicians using gospel, soul, blues and funk music to tell the story of a gifted outsider. PHOTOS: OSHI REAGON AND BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON, ANDREAS SCHLIETER, EM WATSON, SHANE REID

A stage adaptation of George Orwell's classic dystopian novel 1984, concerts from YouTube jazz sensation Jacob Collier and a free human circus on the Empress Lawn are packed into the opening weekend of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa) this year.

More than 40 diverse events have been programmed from April 26 to May 12 by festival director Gaurav Kripalani and his team.

Free talks, performances and art experiences in and around The Arts House - renamed "Festival House" for the duration - take place alongside blockbuster shows such as 1984 by British theatre-makers Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan.

On April 27, for example, festivalgoers can watch 1984 at the Esplanade Theatre - front-row seats at $10 for students - and then head to the Empress Lawn afterwards for a free tightrope act, ...Sodade..., by French troupe Cirque Rouages.

Kripalani hopes to create a sense of place and excitement around the arts festival. "I love festivals that have a festival village, a place where artists and audiences can go and talk about the show and eat and discuss the plays they've seen," he says.

Bringing back the buzz is a big part of his vision as the festival director from this year to 2020.

In 1977, the Singapore Arts Festival was the biggest show in town, bringing the arts world outside Singapore to local stages.

Kripalani recalls watching the acclaimed Macbeth of the late Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa in 1992, thanks to the festival. "It shaped my appreciation of theatre. I had never seen Shakespeare like that. I had never seen anything of that scale."


  • WHERE: Various locations

    WHEN: April 26 to May 12

    ADMISSION: Various prices, from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to

    INFO: For more ticketing and programme details, go to

Towards the end of its 36-year run, the Singapore Arts Festival saw a dramatic fall in attendance. It was revamped, with TheatreWorks' artistic director Ong Keng Sen taking over from 2014 to last year. The festival is currently funded by the National Arts Council and organised by The Arts House Limited.

Sifa was held during August and September in the past four years, but has now been moved forward to April and May, away from the competing buzz of National Day and the Singapore Grand Prix.

Another change: Students can buy $10 front-row seats for blockbuster shows such as 1984, acclaimed American tap-dancer Michelle Dorrance's The Blues Project and German director Thomas Ostermeier's adaptation of the Henrik Ibsen play, Enemy Of The People.

Kripalani says: "Students always get put in the cheap seats at the back because that's all the schools can afford. If we're going to be a pinnacle arts festival, so much is about the show's accessibility to the next generation. And their enthusiasm ripples through the audience."

The only ticketed events without these cheap seats are masterclasses with artists such as Dorrance and shows already priced at $35 or under.

In the past four editions, Sifa was heralded by a pre-festival programme called the O.P.E.N., which featured workshops, exhibitions and film screenings. The Arts House Limited's chief executive officer, Ms Sarah Martin, says the festival team has built on this idea by incorporating such events into the main festival season.

For example, on April 28, a talk and a book club will be held at the Festival House. The talk complements poetry evening Rhymes Of Love by Bollywood power couple Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi on April 27. The book club discusses Octavia E. Butler's Parable Of The Sower, staged here on May 4 and 5.

Parable Of The Sower is an operatic adaptation of Butler's dystopian novel, with American musicians Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon using quintessentially African-American music - gospel, soul, blues, funk - to tell the story of a gifted outsider.

Sifa this year also pays particular tribute to music.

It opens with ticketed concerts by Collier, a 24-year-old jazz musician whose YouTube arrangements of classic tunes went viral and who won two Grammys last year.

It closes with Nico Muhly, a protege of American composer Philip Glass, performing at the School of the Arts Drama Theatre, as well as a free jazz concert by the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

"I think we've programmed things we love," Kripalani says, with a laugh. "We've consciously made sure there are shows that would appeal to a person attending for the first time as well as a seasoned arts lover."

There are a few local commissions this year, such as 0600, a tour cum performance at the National Gallery Singapore from new arts collective Ground Z-0, which taps the building's heritage as the Supreme Court.

Toy Factory Productions is staging A Dream Under The Southern Bough - The Beginning, a contemporary version of a 17th-century Kun opera.

Then there is the cross-disciplinary work Anticipation Of One, where musicians from music collective SA and electronic duo Nada work with multimedia artist Brandon Tay, 36, who is creating lightscapes to accompany the musical performance at the Festival House on May 4 and 5.

He and Nada worked together on a musical project for the 2016 O.P.E.N. part of Sifa, mashing scenes from old Malay movies with Nada's performance. Tay also worked on giant light installations for the just-concluded Light To Night Festival: Colour Sensations for last month's Singapore Art Week and says he is looking forward to working on the intimate space in the Festival House.

"Sifa has a very strong heritage and a very strong history. The people working on it know that and expect a certain calibre. It's a great opportunity for arts practitioners," he says.

Kripalani says Sifa has commissioned more local works for next year and 2020.

"You can't create something in six months," says the festival director, whose appointment was announced in March last year. "Sifa is going to see how we can facilitate exploration, collaboration and give artists time to do things."

Festival highlights for theatre newbies

Festival director Gaurav Kripalani aims for the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2018 to draw in seasoned arts lovers as well as first-time festivalgoers. He suggests that newbies watch these three shows for starters.


What: A showcase of tap dance from acclaimed American performer Michelle Dorrance and her Dorrance Dance troupe, performed to blues sung live by Toshi Reagon and the BIGLovely Ensemble. Why: Kripalani says: "It's fun. Michelle Dorrance pushes the boundary of what people perceive tap to be. It will draw in people who enjoy the art form and then let them experience something they've never experienced before." When: May 8 and 9, 8pm Where: Victoria Theatre, 9 Empress Place Admission: $35 and $50 via Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to; $10 tickets for students from


What: A concert from the 24-year-old British musician whose viral YouTube videos feature multiple versions of himself singing in harmony. Collier's take on the theme from classic 1960s cartoon The Flintstones has received more than one million views on YouTube and won a Grammy Award last year for Best Arrangement, Instruments and Vocals. Why: Kripalani says: "He creates multi-disciplinary music on the spot with multiple instruments. It's a joy to watch." When: April 27, 8pm Where: Victoria Theatre Admission: $40 via Sistic; $10 tickets for students from


What: A stage adaptation of George Orwell's classic novel about state control and surveillance, from British playwrights and directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan. Why: Kripalani says: "It's a multimedia theatrical performance with a strong narrative." When: April 26, 8pm; April 27, 7.45pm; April 28 and 29, 3 and 8pm Where: Esplanade Theatre, 1 Esplanade Drive Admission: $35 to $80 via Sistic; $10 tickets for students from

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 06, 2018, with the headline Singapore International Festival of Arts brings back the buzz. Subscribe