Opera in the Park 2017: Interview with Conductor Joshua Tan

With this year being the tenth iteration of Opera in the Park, Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO) has curated a programme which celebrates the talent and energy of our youth. Featuring winners from the Open and Junior categories of the SLO-ASEAN Vocal Competition 2016, together with the SLO Chorus and Children’s Choir, Opera in the Park promises a selection of classical favourites that will entertain and delight the whole family. 

I contacted conductor Joshua Tan to find out more about this year’s programme. 

Joshua Tan

Could you explain the process of coming up with the programme for Opera in the Park?

Ms Nancy Yuen (Hon. Artistic Director) spoke to the singers, and discussed what will be suitable for their voices. Then we came together and agreed on the overall suitability of the program.  

With this being your seventh Opera in the Park, how has the show evolved over time? Any fond memories that stand out?

The SLO has always tried to showcase young talents for Opera in the Park, and my fondest memories or experiences have always been marvelling at how far all the previous singers have come.  

If you could only pick one favourite piece from this year’s programme, which one would it be and why? 

That’s an extremely difficult question! I like all of them. It’s almost impossible to choose a favourite. I love Puccini so you can put O Mio Babbino Caro on the list. At the same time, I love listening to other genres, so the selection from Phantom of the Opera also features. The Verdi selections showcase wonderful chorus writing, so that has to be in too!

You were one of the judges for the SLO-Asean Vocal Competition 2016. What are your impressions of the winners? Is there anything interesting that you’ve learnt about music from rehearsing with them? 

They were all very deserving winners, but it’s a long arduous road ahead for all of them. I did not rehearse with them for the competition, but listening to such fresh interpretations of familiar works certainly gives me some other ideas!

With this iteration being geared towards a celebration of youth, what do you think are some of the promises and challenges that the future will hold for upcoming opera singers and orchestra players? 

I don’t think that the challenges have changed so much throughout the years. There has always been immense competition for orchestral jobs, and professional engagements for opera singers are hard to come by for anyone who’s just starting out. For those on the cusp of a professional career, there are many sacrifices to be made since the very nature of the job demands one to be constantly on the move. 

Opera in the Park 

Conductor   Joshua Kangming Tan

Featuring winners from the Open and Junior categories of the SLO-ASEAN Vocal
Competition 2016

Open Category Winner    Izen Kong
Open Category Winner     Zhang Jie
Junior Category Winner    Lauren Yeo
Junior Category Winner    Melissa Hecker

With the Singapore Lyric Opera Orchestra, Chorus and Children’s Choir

Chorus Master    Terrence Toh

Children’s Choir Mistress    Rose Loh

Programme

Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore
Overture
Bel conforto al mietitore

Rossini’s La Gazzetta, O lusinghiero amor

Bellini’s La Sonnambul , Ah! Non credea mirarti

Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Voi che sapete

Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, Com’è gentil

Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, O mio babbino caro

Verdi’s Aida
Gloria all’Egitto
Egyptian March (Overture)
Vieni, o guerriero vindice

This concert is subject to weather conditions. Programme may not be in order of performance. Artistes and Programme are subject to change.

Opera in the Park is on Saturday, 17 July 2017, 6 p.m., at Singapore Botanical Gardens. Free admission. For more details, please visit Singapore Lyric Opera

Interview with Lucas Ho on his new play, Frago

Photo: Joel Lim @ Calibre Pictures

Fresh from its successful re-staging of Faith Ng’s Normal, Checkpoint Theatre continues its 15th anniversary celebrations with Frago, a new play by associate artist Lucas Ho. 

Inspired by his reservist experiences, and billed as “a timely look at [an] intergral rite of passage for Singaporean men and the forging of bonds between those not bound by blood,” I caught up with Lucas to find out more about the play.

What inspired you to write the play? Was there a specific incident that happened in your life that compelled you to write it?

There wasn’t a specific incident that led to my writing of the play. But as I returned for reservist year after year, I observed some changes and shifts that men in my unit were undergoing as they began to make their way through their 20s into their 30s.  Some were getting married and settling down; some were contemplating career changes and further studies; and some were simply trundling along. I was fascinated by the different ways in which each of them grappled with adulthood and manhood.

Other playwrights such as Michael Chiang and Chong Tze Chien have also set their plays within the context of National Service to explore societal issues. What is it about the military context that makes it a fertile ground to explore such issues?

Tze Chien’s Charged used national service to examine uncomfortable truths about race relations in Singapore, while Michael Chiang’s Army Daze focused on enlistment as a rite of passage, and the confounding and absurd ways boys stumble into manhood. I love both plays dearly, and I think what drew them to write about national service is that it gathers men with apparently very little in common in the same space. And then these men have to go through some very intense experiences together, which brings certain things into sharper focus: their values systems, their long-held beliefs, their fears and their joys. And those things can greatly cleave people together or apart.

What happens when those men—who have had these very intense shared experiences —are made to come together and re-live them over and over again? How does age lead them to perceive their youth? How does their perception of each other shift? Those were things I was interested to explore. Frago is focused on the reservist experience. Reservists essentially do exactly what the full-time NSmen have to do in terms of physical activities and operational exercises, but in a very compressed amount of time every year, over a period of 10 years.

Are you very involved with the rehearsal process? Having watched the actors bring your script to life, has it made you see your own reservist experience in a different light?

We only just started rehearsals, but Huzir has requested that I be present especially during the early phases to serve as a “technical advisor” to the cast because the play is set specifically within an armoured infantry unit. After listening to the actors at our first table read, I found myself wishing that my reservist mates and I could have had deeper conversations, instead of skirting around talking about the things that truly mattered to us.

What advice would you give to someone who is about to enlist, or about to go through reservist for the first time?

NS is a rare opportunity to meet people you normally wouldn’t, beyond your socio-economic circle. So seek to get to know and understand those around you as much as possible. In this day and age, we really do need to listen to each other more, and if men put aside the anger and frustration so often associated with NS, we can pave the way for a more empathetic version of ourselves.

Frago runs from 13–23 July 2017 at Drama Centre Black Box. Tickets at $45 from Sistic

Bhaskar’s Arts Academy’s Cross-Cultural Leanings

Bhaskar’s Arts Academy’s (BAA) latest production, Vinayaka, sees the troupe collaborating with Sasana Budaya Art Troupe (Indonesia)  and Singa Nglaras Gamelan Ensemble (Singapore) as part of their Traditional Arts in the Region series. To better understand BAA’s new direction towards cross-cultural collaboration, I arranged an email interview with Mrs Santha Bhaskar, artistic director of BAA .

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Mrs Santha Bhaskar

What made BAA decide to launch the Traditional Arts in the Region series?

In 1990 I was awarded a scholarship to study Thai culture at Chulalongkorn University. I think my most profound experience was the collaboration among the delegates of that ASEAN Exchange programme. The sharing of cultures from the representatives  made me realise how old and how much of a treasure our traditions are.

At the end of the course, we were expected to create an item to signify the unity of ASEAN in dance. Singapore is in a very unique situation because of its cosmopolitan nature and its multi-cultural tradition. My representation, being an Indian dancer, was a question that I had to answer to many and to myself. I knew I had to make my contribution “Singapore” in nature. It was difficult initially but in the end I created the evolution of man (through the avathars of Vishnu), finishing with the struggle to attain ultimate intelligence and symbolised this with Buddha (the enlightened one).

Again and again I have choreographed ASEAN epics such as Ramayana, Manohra and Vinayaka. With each production, BAA’s connection to the ASEAN region became stronger and that led to the launch of the series.

Earlier this year, BAA performed in Bangkok for the ASEAN plus Ramayana Festival. Has BAA been very involved in cultural events organised by ASEAN? If so, how has such encounters influenced the artistic practice of BAA?
In addition to my early encounter in 1990, many more ASEAN Ramayana performances have been staged in this region. BAA has been involved in several of them starting with the Ramayana Festival in Angkor Wat, Cambodia in 1994. Subsequently there were several others in Myanmar, India and Thailand. My daughter, Meenakshy Bhaskar, also spent more than a year touring the region with Realizing Rama — a production that brought together artistes from all around the region. These events did influence BAA to create an awareness of ASEAN traditional arts and culture, and foster collaborations with our neighbouring countries.

I noticed that the Southeast Asian Studies department at the National University of Singapore is listed as one of your collaborators. What is their role in this production?

Department of South east Asian Studies’ Gamelan ensemble is collaborating with BAA’S musicians to play joint compositions of Carnatic and Javanese music. It is a definitely a happy marriage of two happy partners.

Stay tuned for an upcoming interview conducted with the choreographers and musical directors of Vinayaka about the rehearsal process. 

Vinayaka

16 October 2016 (Sunday)

7:30pm

SOTA Drama Theatre

$25 & $30

Tickets: BAA website or enquires@bhaskarsarts.com

Four Questions with Director Tracie Pang on Rent

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Photo: Crispian Chan / Courtesy of Pangdemonium

To close its 2016 season, Pangdemonium has gathered a star-studded cast to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the hit musical, Rent. I conducted an email interview with director Tracie Pang to find out more about Pangdemonium’s take on the show.

Rent is the final show of Pangdemonium’s “Season of Love.” Why was the theme of love chosen for this year and why Rent?

Coming out of 2015 where the refugee crisis really started to make the news, the pieces we were drawn to had love centrally and squarely in their themes in one way or another. Rent ended up just being a natural end to the season plus with it being the 20th anniversary of Rent the timing was fitting. It was a seminal piece of theatre and a game changer when it opened. There is also a whole generation of people here who haven’t seen it as they were too young given that it has always been given a R18 rating in Singapore.

Caroline Framke from Vox.com thinks that Rent feels outdated because it “leans so heavily on grunge and generic alt-rock.”  Do you agree? Apart from the message, is there anything in particular about this staging that would appeal to today’s audience?

You could say that about any musical over 20 years old, should we not produce West Side Story or Singing in the Rain because it is dated? I would beg to offer a different perspective. This musical cannot be transported out of the time and place that it was set; it is indicative of the time and struggles of what was happening in ’89/90. It is in the music, the instrumentation and the story line. What is important is to look at how it had an influence on musicals that came after it with small bands, scaled down sets and gritty storylines.

Without Rent, musicals would not have progressed to the likes of Next to Normal where the rock edge in the music helps to connect to our emotions, our modern stories, and today’s generation in a more immediate and instinctual way. The story line in Rent is still very important and so its relevance is still key — diverse communities coming together in love through adversity. Accepting others who are different from ourselves and offering help and love. HIV may not be the death sentence that it was 20 years ago. We have treatments that work now, but it has not been eradicated and once you have it—you will live with it and have to medicate for the rest of your life.

Pangdemonium is known for engaging with community partners as part of its research and advocacy efforts. What are some surprising facts about AIDS that you learnt in the course of preparing for the show? 

Many of today’s youth are not aware of AIDS and HIV, the awareness of the virus has died down and we hope that this musical will go some way to reminding us that our new generations need to be kept aware. In the last 35 years, more than 70 million people have been infected with the HIV virus, and about 35 million people have died of HIV-related illnesses. Globally, approximately 36.7 million people are still living with HIV today. Singapore is not immune to this disease and we have met young people living with the disease on our journey with Rent. With this in mind,  we will be having a post-show dialogue with a representative from Action for Aids and Oogachaga for two shows on Wednesday nights (they have been given an advisory 16 rating so that teens and families can attend the show).

If you could change one aspect of our society in an instant, what would it be?

Fear. Fear of foreigners, fear of strangers, fear of people who are from a different ethnic or religious group. To be more accepting, welcoming and loving. As the good book says, love thy neighbour!

RENT runs from 7-23 October 2016 at the Drama Centre Theatre. Tickets from Sistic.

Bidding a Home Farewell: On Space, Gratitude, and Spirit

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Stamford Arts Centre, April 2016

To many, the Stamford Arts Centre is a quaint building where art happens. But for Mrs Santha Bhaskar, artistic director of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (BAA), it is more than a sum of the things that happen within it; it is home.

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Mrs Santha Bhaskar

It is home not simply because she spent half her artistic career there, or that she feels a surge of sentimentality with the centre’s impending closure. Rather, it is home because the space is sustained by a community and, in turn, the space allows for art to grow and evolve.  She explains:

“It was in 1988 that we moved here, and we were the first tenant. The National Arts Council (NAC) did not give us a grant to renovate the place, but we needed to convert some of the bigger rooms into smaller rooms on the third level for music classes. What my late husband, Mr K.P. Bhaskar, did was to borrow money from our students’ parents, wrote IOUs, and we returned the money when we made some profit,”

Another significance of the space is that it marked a new phase of development and growth for BAA and its training arm, Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society (NAS).

“Our group is in this place. When we were at the National Theatre and Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre, it was Mr Bhaskar and I who taught dance. We didn’t have any teachers. I taught most of the classes, and Mr Bhaskar handled all the administrative tasks. We only taught and performed Bharatanatyam, that is all. Coming here, we really grew and we brought teachers from India to help with the music classes. So all that happened here. The school has become big now.”

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According to an earlier interview, NAS  has around 2000 students learning a plethora of Indian art forms. Courses in dance (Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Odissi), music (various instruments and Carnatic singing techniques), and visual art are offered. More importantly, NAS has its own syllabus for Bharatanatyam and students who complete it are awarded a diploma, and offered teaching and performing opportunities at BAA. “We are self-sustaining in the sense that we have our own pool of dancers and are not dependent on India. We have Singaporean dancers, that’s our specialty,” says Mrs Bhaskar as she beams with pride.

Courses offered by NAS.

Courses offered by NAS

But space and community are not limited to the boundaries within Stamford Arts Centre. “We are opposite two temples and there’s a lot of good energy for the space. So whatever we do, we offer it to the deities, the people, and the space around us.” She adds, “We have very good neighbours. Although we are near to a food court and HDB blocks, no one has complained that we make a lot of noise. We stay here with a lot of harmony.”

Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple which is opposite Stamford Arts Centre

Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple which is opposite Stamford Arts Centre

Nearby HDB Blocks

Nearby HDB Blocks

It is with this sense of gratitude that led Mrs Bhaskar to conceive of Na Mah as the first production of the year for BAA. “We will be saying goodbye to this building. It is my way of thanking the space, and the dancers who have learnt from me. While some of them have stopped, their presence and support have sustained the company.”

In fact, gratitude lies at the heart of her practice. “For me, it’s very important. I’m grateful to a lot of things which surrounds me. Even the dancers, they pass energy to me when they perform. I consider this to be my philosophy of performing and teaching.”

Mrs Bhaskar giving instructions to the dancers

Mrs Bhaskar instructing the dancers

The show mostly consists of Mrs Bhaskar’s favourite pieces that were performed by the company. “I can sit and watch those items for any number of times. Some people might get bored and say, ‘I’ve seen this already. Why are you watching it again?’ For me, it’s not like that.”

However, there are other pieces in the show that hold a deeper significance. Two pieces in the line up are from a previous production, Xpressions, which was performed three years ago. This was the last production that Mr Bhaskar watched before he passed away. “We had two nights, and he couldn’t watch the performance on the second night as he was unable to walk up to Esplanade. Three days later, he passed away,” recalls Mrs Bhaskar. “As these two pieces have not been performed since, I am putting them in this show to pay homage to him.”

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Mr TK Arun on the veena

Yet, long-time fans of BAA have something new to look forward to. Apart from the opening number, there is an item that is based on a contemporary Tamil poem. Mrs Bhaskar elaborates: “It is about love and anger between two people. Who is getting angry with whom? I am in love with this space, the clouds love the sky, and the flowers are also spreading their scent. But who is angry with whom?”

She also points out that the pieces are not connected together and audience need not be intimidated, if they are unfamiliar with the Indian epics, as they can be appreciated on their own. Thus, Na Mah is a tribute to those who have come before, and a celebration of the artistic trajectory that BAA has taken.

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Dancers in rehearsal

Despite the understandable sadness of bidding the centre farewell, Mrs Bhaskar is accepting of NAC’s decision. “Singapore is changing, and we have to change accordingly. The building is very old and its stability is a big concern for all of us. If it has to be changed, it has to be changed.”  To the best of her knowledge, the centre will be converted into a space for traditional arts.

While NAC has yet to announce any concrete plans, she hopes that the NAC and other government agencies are mindful of the centre’s surroundings. “I told them that we are opposite two temples, and a lot of devotees go there. I believe that there are a lot of energies around, both positive and negative. It is important that they consult both temples before going ahead with any plans. Personally, I believe that there shouldn’t be any tall buildings in front of the temples.”

Sri Krishnan Temple as viewed from Stamford Arts Centre

Sri Krishnan Temple as viewed from Stamford Arts Centre

Looking forward, BAA and NAS will be relocated to the fourth floor of Bras Basah Complex. The new space will host rehearsals for their next production which will be choreographed by Mrs Bhaskar’s daughter, Meenakshy Bhaskar, in collaboration with Balinese dancers.

Apart from new productions, Mrs Bhaskar is also looking at starting a research programme in the near future. It will introduce a systematic way of archiving, researching, and analysing the artistic practices of BAA. For a start, Dr Wong Chee Meng, post-doctoral fellow at Nanyang Technological University, will research on BAA’s upcoming performance of Ramayana in Thailand.

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Mr Ghanavenothan Retnam (flute), Mr TV Sajith (violin), and Ms Ampili Pillai (vocalist)

When asked for her hopes for the future, she has this to say:

“I hope the younger generation will take it seriously. Apart from dance, they should learn music, literature, and visual arts because these elements are interconnected with any traditional Indian dance form.

But the present situation is that they do not have time to learn other things because they are busy with their studies or work. They can only do that if they are a full-timer, but somebody has to pay them a decent salary. I don’t think Singapore is ready for that. So they have to resort to teaching, but the body will become lazy. You’ll think that it is enough and say, ‘I’m making a living already, so why should I do other things?’

If you really want to be an artist, you need a lot of willpower. I don’t know how the next generation is going to be as they are quite pampered. But maybe, someone will come forward.”

Hallway looking into one of the studios where music classes are held

Hallway looking into one of the studios where music classes are held

While the future may be uncertain, there is still a lot to be thankful for. “Mr Bhaskar used to say, ‘Although we didn’t make much money from practising art, we have a lot of good karma.’ We are able to give our students a little bit of knowledge about dance and music, and that itself is a big thing.”

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Directory of Stamford Arts Centre

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Catch Na Mah at Esplanade Theatre Studio on 16 April, 2pm and 8pm. Please contact Bhaskar’s Arts Academy at 6336 6537 to book your tickets.

The Mad Chinaman Returns!

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Having been involved with The LKY Musical and this year’s National Day Parade, Dick Lee decides to take a trip down memory lane by reviving a concert which charts his musical journey from his childhood in the 1960s to the release of his album, The Mad Chinaman, in 1989. This revival promises all of Lee’s well-known songs with an extended storyline and a bigger band.

In the midst of his preparations, Lee generously granted this email interview (his responses have been lightly edited).

For those who are unfamiliar with your earlier work, why present yourself as The Mad Chinaman?

The concert is based on my autobiography which traces my musical journey and explains how I ended up with that nickname. This also happens to be the title of my 1989 album that introduced me to the Asian market.

Will you be writing new songs for this upsized version?

I will be performing songs from my career, including a few cover versions of songs that inspired me.

Your career in Singapore really took off after your success in Japan. Do you think it’s easier for local musicians to gain recognition now without first making a name abroad?

I think being accepted abroad is a kind of validation, but it depends on the genre. For example, a Chinese pop act would not be popular amongst the non-Chinese in Singapore. It is still important to establish yourself in your home country, I think, before other countries can accept you.

What are some aspects of the local music industry that need improvement?

We always complain about lack of exposure and local media support, but to be fair, I think they give all they can give. Finally, it all boils down to the quality of the music. When that improves, the support grows naturally.

If you are given three words to describe the Singapore sound. What would they be?

Tropical. Asian. Bright.

What is one advice you would give to your younger self?

Be Fearless (I guess I was anyway). Then, be MORE fearless!

Are you working on any exciting projects that your fans can look forward to?

For the first time, I’ll be directing the fifth production of my 1988 musical, Beauty World (written with Michael Chiang), the second play in my family trilogy, and my first movie.

 

Catch Dick Lee: The Adventures of the Mad Chinaman Upsized on 3 September, 7:30pm at the Esplanade Concert Hall. For ticketing information, visit Sistic.