Singapore International Festival of Arts: Power of promise

Meet the women of Sifa

The Singapore International Festival of Arts explores the theme of potentialities this year and three shows that feature women performers offer a look at how the arts have the power to move, inspire and reinvent tradition

The new opera Paradise Interrupted is a richly textured production that defies narrow artistic categories.

The dramatic work is about a woman who is lost from paradise and goes on a transcendental search for what she is missing. It is sung in the style of traditional Chinese Kun opera.

However, it has a contemporary score that is performed by Western and Chinese musical instruments.


Directed by artist Jennifer Wen Ma, who worked on the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the one-act opera also borrows from the idiom of installation art.


The surreal setting is evoked by digital projections that respond to the voice of the protagonist. The set features a monochrome garden that calls to mind landscape paintings in Chinese ink, albeit fashioned from life-size paper sculptures that stretch out and fold away, concertina style.

Indeed, a garden-inspired art installation by Ma was what seeded the idea for her non-conventional opera, which is co-commissioned by the Singapore International Festival of Arts, Spoleto Festival USA, Lincoln Center Festival and National Kaohsiung Centre for the Arts.

I thought, how interesting it would be if I imagined an alternative path that she might be on. If a woman experienced loss, where would she go to regain her utopian ideal? ''

PARADISE INTERRUPTED DIRECTOR JENNIFER WEN MA, on being inspired in part by the story of Eve, who was sent away from the Garden of Eden, when creating the production

The installation, Hanging Garden In Ink, is a 20m-long, 3m-wide and 8m-high patch of garden with its plants painted over in Chinese ink. The lower half of the tableau mirrors the top half and the work was shown suspended in a Beijing gallery in 2012.

As part of the exhibition's outreach programme, an excerpt from the well-loved Chinese play, The Peony Pavilion, was performed in the space with the installation as the backdrop. The striking juxtaposition impressed Ma.

In a telephone interview from New York City, where she is based, the 43-year-old artist says: "The setting made me realise that the garden could be a really beautiful metaphor for a dream or an idea that stands for a paradise lost."

In The Peony Pavilion, the female protagonist Du Liniang falls asleep in her family garden and dreams of a romantic encounter with a scholar she has never met. She is so besotted with the man of her dreams that she dies pining for him.

The story reminded Ma of another woman who experienced profound loss - Eve, who was sent away from the Garden of Eden.


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She says: "I thought, how interesting it would be if I imagined an alternative path that she might be on. If a woman experienced loss, where would she go to regain her utopian ideal?"

Ma found her answer when she was introduced to the acclaimed Kun opera star Qian Yi by a mutual friend.

She says: "Qian Yi left China at a young age, searched around the world, performed in different types of opera and theatre and eventually returns to her original love, Kun opera.

"Her artistic journey is that story of searching, losing and regaining oneself."

Qian, 41, agrees. In a telephone interview from New York City, she says: "I moved to the United States when I was 22 or 23 and I struggled with self-worth.

"In China, I learnt Kun opera from masters who were considered national treasures and we were taught to copy them and obey the rules. When I came out, I knew only those routines.

"But how can you portray a character without knowing who you are and why you feel the way you do about things?"

In the years between, she rediscovered herself as an individual and an artist through working with performers from different disciplines. She also learnt from them how to handle the storied legacy of an artistic tradition.

She says: "To carry on the Kun opera tradition, it is not enough for me to just do what my masters did because something will be lost in the process. I need to reinvent it."

Her passion for renewing the traditional art form matched Ma's creativity and lack of inhibition.

The visual artist, who had never directed a Kun opera until Paradise Interrupted, says: "It was certainly a steep learning curve for me to understand the rules of theatre, but also to know when to break the rules so that we make something new."

It helped, she says, that she is an artist and therefore less burdened by the traditions of opera.

Her aim, however, goes beyond bringing the traditional art form into the 21st century.

She hopes the visceral performance will ultimately resonate with the audience.

The work is about "an age-old struggle" that sees every generation seeking "to break out of one set of utopia to understand who it is and to create its own paradise", she says.

"It is universal in theme, but also personal and I hope audiences can relate to this process of finding themselves and their own voices."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 14, 2016, with the headline 'Chinese opera in surreal setting'. Print Edition | Subscribe