Custodians of the opera

They put in many hours, on top of their day jobs, to learn all aspects of the art

In a teahouse in Smith Street, Madam See Too Hoi Siang is telling some primary school children: "Every sound is music, every movement is a dance."

The 54-year-old is among a small group of full-time Chinese opera teachers in Singapore. She teaches different aspects of opera, from make-up to singing and movements, at the teahouse, as well as in community centres or in schools under the Arts Education Programme.

Her students include adults as old as 63. There are housewives, teachers, real estate consultants and even a chief executive officer among them.

Madam See Too, a former Crescent Girls' School student, whose parents and grandmother were opera lovers, started training at 15 under opera doyenne Joanna Wong.

Her 40 years in opera have made her a versatile artiste who can play various opera characters, from Qing Yi, the gentle maiden, to Daomadan, the action heroine.

She has made many sacrifices in order to pursue her love of this art form. In 1996, she quit her job as a payroll supervisor to perform opera full-time with the Chinese Theatre Circle, which now has about 20 regular volunteers.

Fastening her skirt, Madam See Too gets ready in a makeshift dressing area in the three-storey Opera Tea House in Smith Street. To date, she has given nearly 2000 performances. (From left) Ms Frances Wong, Mr Henry Wong and Mr Gary Ong practising a d
This photo montage (above, from left) shows Chinese opera veteran Madam See Too as herself; with full opera make-up and costume as Madam Green Snake in the Qingyi (gentle maiden) role; and in the Daomadan (action heroine) role. She is perhaps the only homegrown artiste capable of performing both civilian and military-type roles with equal competence. 

She has performed in front of Singapore leaders such as founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and late president Ong Teng Cheong, as well as in countries such as Brazil, Egypt and Germany.

FOR THE LOVE OF THE ART

Nobody can accept the long hours of my work; sometimes, I get home from work at 2am as I am in charge of props, wardrobe and surtitles for performances.

MADAM SEE TOO HOI SIANG, on the sacrifices she makes in the pursuit of the art form.

In 2001, she was named one of the "Ten Outstanding Young Persons of the World", an accolade sponsored by the Junior Chamber International in the United States to recognise young people who excel in their chosen fields and are good role models.

Madam See Too said being on stage in front of an audience makes her happy. "Those who love the art form (find) there is so much to learn. Every gesture is beautiful when we move, sing and dance."

So far, she has delivered almost 2,000 performances at home and abroad and given demonstrations to over 500,000 students in Singapore.

One of her students, Mr Henry Wong, a real estate consultant in his 60s, is learning opera with his wife. He said: "We are fortunate to have Madam See Too as a teacher. She is kind, understanding and patient, and has kept me going as well as pushed the limits for every opera piece we learnt."

Ms Hong Shui Hui, 31, a senior executive with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, who was influenced by her grandmother and learnt opera for a year, said the historical Chinese stories that went with the songs and gestures helped develop her interest further.

Mr Gary Ong Jun Ming, 34, a teacher, is taking opera classes four nights a week. He was already interested in the art in junior college and had his own opera costumes and make-up kit.

Madam See Too, who is single, earns about $2,000 a month and lives in a five-room flat in Jurong with her 83-year-old father. Her elder brother and sister are married and have their own families.

She said: "Nobody can accept the long hours of my work; sometimes I get home from work at 2am as I am in charge of props, wardrobe and surtitles for performances." In operas or musicals, surtitles are translated or transcribed lyrics and dialogue that are projected on a screen.

Madam See Too pauses and adds: "If everybody thought of themselves first, the troupe would have wound up a long time ago."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 17, 2016, with the headline 'Custodians of the opera'. Print Edition | Subscribe