Putting a slick, edgy spin on opera

New Opera Singapore's Die Fledermaus was staged in 2014 with a club- hopping, spangled, Asian vibe.
New Opera Singapore's Die Fledermaus was staged in 2014 with a club- hopping, spangled, Asian vibe.PHOTO: NEW OPERA SINGAPORE

Korea-born soprano Jeong Ae Ree started New Opera Singapore five years ago to give her singing students a place to shine.

Today, the troupe is a byword for slick and edgy opera productions that prove the art form is not old- fashioned.

In March, it received a $130,000 Major Grant from the National Arts Council for further development.

New Opera Singapore presents multiple concerts and operettas each year, as well as a full-fledged production.

Last year, viewers were kept on the edge of their seats during The Turn Of The Screw by English composer-conductor Benjamin Britten, a tense psychological mystery about two children corrupted by their caregivers.

In April this year, domestic violence was the theme of Donizetti's blackly comic one-act opera Rita, or Le Mari Battu (The Beaten Husband).

This week, Greek mythology gets a makeover in Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus In The Underworld, staged at Victoria Theatre. The tale of a husband who heads to the land of the dead to reclaim his wife is reworked for two people trapped in a loveless marriage.

Jeong, 47, artistic director of New Opera Singapore, says: "People think opera is for old people, but if you come for New Opera Singapore, you'll see that we have a lot of young people in the audience. The presentation appeals to them."

In 2014, Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss the Younger was staged with a club-hopping, spangled, Asian vibe, for example.

Jeong, a permanent resident here, is married to Singaporean cellist Chan Wei Shing, who is the music director of New Opera Singapore. They have a daughter aged 13.

Several of her former students make up the group's artistic and managerial arms.

New Opera Singapore makes it a point to present opera not in the standard repertoire staged by stalwarts such as the Singapore Lyric Opera.

"Opera is just like food, like cheese, for example," Jeong says. "Some people love it, for others, it's not their cup of tea, but we should be exposed to a lot of different kinds before we decide."

The full-scale production of Orpheus In The Underworld this week has 30-plus musicians and a cast and chorus numbering in the dozens.

This is a far cry from the shoestring production that was the troupe's first. Jeong scrounged up $80,000 to stage Donizetti's L'Elisir D'Amore (The Elixir Of Love) in 2012, a tale of love potions and cons, but could not afford props and scenery apart from projections.

Yet the production wowed critics, won New Opera Singapore a Seed Grant for future performances and launched the singing career of Jeong's student, soprano Teng Xiang Ting, who played the snooty heroine Adina.

Teng, 27, alternates the part of Euridice this week with Felicia Teo Kaixin. Teng read law at the National University of Singapore and was called to the bar. After her operatic debut, she decided her voice would be her future.

She says: "What draws me to opera is the art of singing and that it's a collaboration between so many different artists."

Teng did her master's in music at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England, and has a scholarship to return there for a post-graduate diploma.

"What I think is great about New Opera Singapore is that it opens auditions to anyone. When I auditioned, I didn't even know what it entailed. It was amazing," she says.

"You have a lot of people saying opera is not relevant, but I don't think so. The music is so accessible and the themes are so relevant even today - love, betrayal, fidelity."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 26, 2016, with the headline 'Putting a slick, edgy spin on opera'. Print Edition | Subscribe