Fabulous four notes

Tom Johnson's Four Note Opera is, as the name suggests, based on just four notes (occasionally other notes did creep in for special effect). PHOTO: FACEBOOK/L'ARIETTA




Aliwal Arts Centre/Last Friday

In previous productions, L'Arietta have done opera without lots of singers or lots of instruments. In this production they did it without lots of notes. Tom Johnson's Four Note Opera is, as the name suggests, based on just four notes (occasionally other notes did creep in for special effect).

But this hour-long production involving one piano, four singers - plus a supernumerary bass - and four dancers serving as the singers' Alter Egos, was neither musically tedious nor tiresomely repetitive. And that was down to the sheer ingenuity of Johnson's score and Mary Ann Tear's inspired direction.

So well cast were the principal singers that it seemed as if the opera had been conceived with them in mind. In fact The Four Note Opera dates from 1972, when American composers were obsessed with minimalism and while as a show it was side-splittingly entertaining, it was devilishly clever as a piece of music.

Angela Hodgins as The Contralto ("actually I'm a mezzo-soprano" was one of her more memorable lines) was absolutely fabulous. Bitchy in her relationship with The Soprano, charming in the ensemble numbers and nothing short of amazing in her unaccompanied aria.

Required to drift out of tune and then back in again, she performed this feat with such impeccable sure- footedness, that when Aloysius Foong, the insouciant but razor-sharp musical director, matched her final note on the piano, the resulting applause was so loud that, I am reliably informed, you could hear it from the other side of Aliwal Street.

As The Soprano, Akiko Otao exuded endearing charm while conveying a convincingly grotesque and egotistic diva. Her double aria, sung slowly to "show my lyricism" and again quickly to "show my virtuosity", was not just a masterly display of vocal control, but also a matchless example of exquisite comedic delivery.

The two lead male roles, Brett Allcock as The Baritone and Leslie Tay as The Tenor, were each supremely commanding vocally.

Allcock was a marvellously poised presence, astonishingly precise in his incredibly complex aria involving lots of unexpected pauses and scripted false entries. Tay brought wonderful richness and passion to his role as the frustrated Tenor denied his top C by a score that had no Cs in it.

Only Thomas Manhart, making a cameo appearance as The Bass, lacked vocal presence, singing a line way below his range. But he more than compensated for this lack by his gloriously melodramatic stage presence.

Tear's monochrome staging and lighting took its cue from the piano placed centre stage. Unfortunately, the blue hair of one of the excellent dancers was a distracting spray of colour in an otherwise uniformly black-and-white visual production.

In every respect, this was a brilliant show and one which will long stand out as a high point in the chequered annals of Singapore opera.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 03, 2017, with the headline Fabulous four notes. Subscribe