Risque cabaret display

Cabaret songs form a very specific genre of artsongs, with origins in 1880s Paris at the legendary Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat) nightclub of Montmartre.

Its clientele included artists, intellectuals and bohemians, and the music spawned was a sophisticated variety of comedy and satire, with double entendres and social commentary as essentials in the mix.

This 80-minute concert by the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts' Vocal Studies Department, headed by Jessica Chen, was an entertaining and educational survey, presenting 18 songs by 17 singers and eight pianists. Two co-hosts provided context and commentary via corny jokes, while visuals and song translations were projected on a screen above them.

The journey began in France with two songs by Erik Satie, Je Te Veux (I Want You) sung sentimentally by tenor Kevin Lee, a waltz-song followed by the frivolities of La Diva De L'Empire, which had soprano Tan Hui Yen hamming up the part.

Theatricality and wit play a large part in the success of cabaret songs, and there were hits and misses along the way here.



    Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Vocal Studies

    Lee Foundation Theatre/Thursday

Soprano Angela Cortez coped with very high registers needed for Francis Poulenc's Violon and was more successful than Liu Gelin in the well-known Les Chemins De L'Amour (The Pathways Of Love), which proved elusive for her studied demeanour and lack of abandon.

Arnold Schoenberg wrote eight Brettl-Lieder for Ernst von Wolzogen's Berlin-based cabaret theatre Uberbrettl, five of which were sung here. Take away the suggestive and saucy German lyrics, and one gets some of the atonalist's most melodious music.

Cortez fared better in Galathea (which shockingly had paedophilic lines), and two cross-dressing sopranos Cherie Tse and Sim Weiyang quite convincingly accounted for Gigerlette and Der Genugsame Liebhaber (The Contented Suitor). They were, after all, singing from a gentleman's viewpoint.

Tenor Kee Chun Kiat recounted the "boom boom boom" palpitations of an insatiable lover in Aria from Dem Spiegel Von Arkadien (The Mirror Of Arcadia), while mezzo-soprano Chong Lee Khim had more than she could handle in Einfaltiges Lieder (Simple Song), a misnomer if there was one.

Composer Benjamin Britten's Tell Me The Truth About Love and Calypso were settings to words by W.H. Auden. The former yielded one of the evening's best performances from soprano Siti Hasia Abdul Hakeem, who had a most natural way with words and movements to match. The lightning speed at which soprano Gladys Seow tackled the latter was simply breathtaking.

The least satisfying segment of the show came in songs by American Dominick Argento, revealing the singers' lack of sympathy for the idiom, unintelligible English pronunciation, lack of confidence and experience, or both.

Leaving best for last, composer William Bolcom's difficult songs more or less met their match in three male singers. Baritone David Tao had a suitably smarmy way with Black Max, the personification of vice and prostitution. Tenor Reginald Jalleh had the audience in his hands with play of the word Amor.

Tenor Daniel Yap brought down the house with George, a tribute to a most amicable murdered transvestite.

Really, who needs to watch R-rated movies when more fun could be had in cabaret songs?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 12, 2016, with the headline 'Risque cabaret display'. Subscribe