Realising the dream of Singaporean opera




The Arts House

Last Friday

In opera parlance, Il Trittico refers to three one-act operas by the Italian Giacomo Puccini, namely Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi.

Singapore has been bestowed a Trittico of its own by young composer Chen Zhangyi and librettist Jack Lin, whose A Singapore Trilogy was performed complete for the first time in a single sitting at a single venue.

All three operas, sung in English and directed by veteran thespian Nora Samosir, had typically Singaporean settings with characters and inter-personal relationships one could readily identify with.

Opera company L'Arietta spared little effort in creating an immersive experience by staging the performances simultaneously in two different spaces within The Arts House, with the audience up close and featuring some of the local vocal scene's finest voices.

Receiving its world premiere in The Blue Room was Kopi For One (2018), centred on an estranged father-daughter relationship within a neighbourhood kopitiam, or coffee shop.

Soprano Akiko Otao and tenor Jonathan Charles Tay played protagonists who seemed remote despite the familial connection.

Their disparate personalities were brought together by the levity of soprano Yee Ee-Ping's cleaning "auntie" with her unabashed Singlish and spouted colloquialisms.

This emotional distance, although initially jarring, was well-founded. It was only in the opera's final minutes when the twist was revealed: The father we saw and heard was a ghost.

The music was modern yet tonal, accompanied by an ensemble of violin, cello, flute, clarinet and piano, conducted by the composer himself. As if to complete the experience, the audience were also treated to coffee, tea, Milo and a selection of nyonya kueh during the intermission.

They were later ushered to The Living Room for the far more light-hearted Laksa Cantata (2013), a Singaporean update on the story in J.S. Bach's Coffee Cantata. Soon-to-wed Stephen (tenor Samuel Ng) and Leah (soprano Ng Jingyun) fuss over whether laksa lemak should be served at their nuptials. What appeared to be a sure recipe for a split soup soon resolved in a steaming hot bowl of compromise.

Here the dreamy Stephen and feisty Leah were well-characterised by both Ngs, helped by witty dialogue, and their final waltz of blissful truce eventually sealed the deal.

Finally, reminiscence and reflection dominated Window Shopping (2014), where sopranos Felicia Teo and Phoebe Chee held sway.

Engaging in a favourite local pastime, the two women elicit different reactions after stepping into a high-end shoe boutique.

The wistfulness of Teo's older woman contrasted starkly with Chee's ecstatic young girl, but both were essentially the same person separated by the passage of time. Exuberance of youth gives way to wizened experience, with the unifying factor being Chen's jazz-inflected score played by the same instrumental combination led by Aloysius Foong.

Two decades ago, Singaporean opera seemed a distant dream. Today, it has become par for the course.

With this excellent trilogy, Chen should no longer be referred to as a composer of promise, but one of stature.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 15, 2018, with the headline Realising the dream of Singaporean opera. Subscribe