Heightened bleakness in the dark

A choral group and six soloists will perform Arvo Part's Passio, inspired by the Passion of Christ, with the lights turned off

Voices will cut through the darkness of the Esplanade Concert Hall on Friday, when the stage lights are turned off for the performance by choral group Schola Cantorum Singapore and six soloists from Sydney's The Choir of St James'.
 

The 70-minute rendition of Estonian composer Arvo Part's Passio - his 1982 musical setting of the Passion of Christ - is part of the Esplanade's A Tapestry Of Sacred Music festival. The annual showcase of religious and traditional music is in its 11th edition.

Programmer Tan Xianghui, 36, first came up with the concept of performing Part's work in darkness several years ago after listening to a version of Passio on an album by British male vocal quartet The Hilliard Ensemble.

"The music was simply written yet profoundly sublime, and it immediately became apparent that it would be amazing to hear the work in darkness," says Mr Tan. "Darkness suits the bleakness of the piece and makes it more intimate."

The story of the Passion of Christ tells of the last days of Jesus.

However, the concert hall will not be pitch black as English translations of the Latin lyrics will be projected onto a large black screen.

"Text is important because the music is ultimately carried forward by a narrative of Jesus' arrest and suffering," says Mr Tan.

  • BOOK IT / ARVO PART PASSIO: ST JOHN PASSION IN THE DARK

  • WHERE: Esplanade Concert Hall, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Friday, 8pm

    ADMISSION: Free

    INFO: www.esplanade.com

The singers on stage will also have a small reading light attached to their music stands.

But, says Ms Teo Hsin Ching, 31, Schola Cantorum Singapore's soprano section leader, the dim lighting still makes it difficult to read the score and follow the conductor's gestures.

This means singing in the dark requires not just a lot more focus on the conductor, but also more confidence, she adds.

"Human nature being what it is, there may be a tendency to hesitate or second-guess the conductor's cues if we can't see him clearly, which would not make for a good performance," she says.

Mr Tan says that for the audience, the darkness may reduce visual distractions and make elements of the sound and silence more vibrant and stark. "There is not a lot to see on stage, but plenty to feel from the music and words."

Even so, he adds that darkness is just a tool to enhance the experience of the work.

"Ultimately, what is central to the concert is still the power of the music, narrative and live performance," he says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 17, 2019, with the headline 'Heightened bleakness in the dark'. Print Edition | Subscribe