Singaporeans take lead roles in Singapore Lyric Opera's new show, Bizet's Carmen

Jonathan Charles Tay (left) as Don Jose and Martin Ng as Escamillo at a rehearsal for Bizet's Carmen on Aug 14, 2019.
Jonathan Charles Tay (left) as Don Jose and Martin Ng as Escamillo at a rehearsal for Bizet's Carmen on Aug 14, 2019.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

The Singapore Lyric Opera's new staging of Bizet's Carmen will feature six Singaporeans in the 11-member main cast. According to the company, this is the largest number of local performers it has cast in the leading ensemble.

The show, which is on at the Esplanade Theatre from Aug 30 to Sept 1, will also feature Singaporean conductor Joshua Kangming Tan leading a 70-strong orchestra.

Singaporean tenor Jonathan Charles Tay, 34, who plays the lead role of Don Jose, whose love for Carmen explodes into violence, believes that casting locals is the way to promote opera to a Singaporean audience. "If you want Singaporeans to start caring about opera, they need to see their own local stars. Then they will care."

He adds an analogy: "If Channel 5 shows only American television shows, why would I watch it? I watch it because that's the only place to see Singapore actors."

Co-star baritone Martin Ng, 42, who plays Jose's rival in love, the dashing Escamillo, concurs. "The first thing is to relate to a Singaporean audience. If you can put an Asian interpretation on it, we have something to offer."

Both singers acknowledge that opera has something of an image problem. Ng notes that it is "seen as a vestige of the West".

Tay adds: "Opera is not some Western bourgeois thing where people wear coats to watch. It's too hot to wear coats anyway."

Tay, who trained at the Manhattan School Of Music after being swept away by his first live-opera experience - a Metropolitan Opera production of Romeo And Juliet - points out: "Opera is storytelling about the human condition: love, hate, family, betrayal."

He applauds the Singapore Lyric Opera's move to cast home-grown talent, adding that this is the way to go.

While most may not think of the opera as a viable profession, Tay and Ng have managed to keep body and soul together in pursuit of their operatic passion, although both admit that teaching offers financial stability for them to continue singing.

Ng, a lawyer who gave up the legal profession to pursue voice study in Italy and ended up living there for 12 years, performs overseas a lot. "Carmen is my fourth opera this year. But you need to teach if you want to be based in Asia."

In the meantime, both are focused on doing their best as Spanish characters in a French opera. And each has found a different entry into their respective roles.

  • BOOK IT

  • WHAT: Bizet's Carmen

    WHERE: Esplanade Theatre

    WHEN: Aug 30 (8pm), Aug 31 (8pm), Sept 1 (5pm)

    ADMISSION: $35 to $135

    INFO: str.sg/Jkam

On Don Jose, Tay muses: "He's also a victim. It's almost like men are not allowed to be a #MeToo victim. But Carmen is not traditional. She's beautiful and she knows it, and uses it. Escamillo is more similar to Carmen. They both cannot be in a relationship for more than six months whereas Jose wants something more real."

Ng sums up Escamillo as someone who is accustomed to being loved by many. He adds with a laugh: "I think of him as a K-pop idol. It helps give me that inner confidence to play him."