Nancy Yuen Celebrates Her Career As An Opera Singer

In the lead-up to the Singapore Lyric Opera’s (SLO) Gala Concert which celebrates Nancy Yuen’s operatic career, I spoke to the soprano about her career and plans for SLO as artistic director. 

What was your first encounter of opera, and is there a specific event
that made you decide to become a professional opera singer?

I have always enjoyed singing on stage since the age of 7. As for opera performance, my first encounter was when I was around 20 years old—I was invited to sing one of the principal roles in a short opera called Le Cinesi by Gluck to orchestral accompaniment, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Since then, I decided to pursue my interest in the most serious form  by enrolling as a student at the Royal Academy of Music.

What are the challenges of being an opera singer today as compared to
when you first started out?

YouTube and the internet did not exist when I first started. We were all trained to attend as many performances as possible to watch the top artists at work,  observe the intricacies of stage craft, and absorb the whole ambiance inside the theatre during the performance.

Nowadays, a lot of singers watch opera performances on the internet and listen to the electronic sound coming out of the computers and mobile phones. They end up paying more attention to the facial expressions of the singers rather than the artistry. Unfortunately, as technology progresses, development of live performing arts somehow suffers as people have a difference preference to watching theatrical performances.

If you can only pick three highlights of your 30-year career, what
would it be?

My debut performance  which marked my transition from a student to being the prima donna in Madama Butterfly in 1988 with the Welsh National Opera. That was my biggest breakthrough.

Second, the standing ovation at the 4500-seater Royal Albert Hall in 2000, also as Madama Butterfly.

Another highlight was singing my first Wagnerian role as Senta in Der Fliegende Holländer in Singapore in 2016, which was tremendously thrilling. 

Under your leadership, SLO has been an advocate of bringing opera to
the masses. Why do you think it is important for more people to
experience opera?

Opera is the most complete art form of theatrical experience, with music, drama, sets, costumes, and lighting. They all come together to bring the audience into intricate worlds created by the composers and librettists with the help of directors, conductors, and singers.

We all need a little escape to the imaginary world from time to time. What’s more rewarding than to live through the experience of someone else on stage, shown through music and drama,  and sharing their passion while watching the tragedies or comedies unfold?

How did you go about planning the repertoire for this concert? Any
highlights that the audience should look out for?

All the music chosen in the concert are  from operas I have performed over the years. Many of them are iconic pieces that have been performed many times all over the world. They include highlights from Madama Butterfly, La Traviata, Carmen and La Boheme. The audience are guaranteed for a real treat as they will know most of the tunes and stories.

Any big plans for SLO in the coming years?

SLO will continue the work to promote operas, mounting large-scale opera productions, and doing more and more outreach programmes.

Our SLO Leow Siak Fah Artists’ Training Programme is going from strength to strength. We currently have nine participants working regularly to bring opera to the public, and helping more people appreciate the art of opera.


Gala Concert 2018: A Pearl Celebration for Soprano Nancy Yuen will be held on 9 November 2018 at the Esplanade Concert Hall. Tickets from $40 via Sistic.

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Jason Lai on Conducting Singapore Lyric Opera’s Gala Concert 2018

The main theme for this year’s Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO) Gala Concert is to celebrate the 30th anniversary of  Nancy Yuen, SLO’s artistic director, being in the opera scene.

I spoke to the concert maestro, Jason Lai, to find out more about the concert and his thoughts on our local opera scene. 

From a conductor’s point of view, what qualities should an opera singer ideally have?

I love working with singers and the best ones are able to conduct the conductor. They have the ability to lead and be led, while being absolutely strong in their musical convictions. In the opera house, a singer also needs to able to act well and project their voice to the back of the hall without the need for amplification. It’s very difficult—try running across a stage, grabbing a sword, running at someone, while singing as if you life depended on it. And all this is done on a stage that is raked (sloped downwards toward the audience). This is not easy!

With several smaller opera companies arriving on the local scene, how would you describe Singapore’s opera scene? What do you think is lacking?

It’s quite an exciting time on the local opera scene, and I’m glad that opera is beginning to take off in Singapore. I think it’s largely a question of funding; opera is an expensive business and all those sets, costumes, and orchestras don’t come cheap. But when it all comes together, it’s thrilling.

The question is how do you get an audience to come along with you as you explore the world of opera? What would it take to build that audience? I’ve always been a huge proponent of musical education, and I often talk about music in concerts before I conduct it.  So  it’s also a question of how could we guide the audiences more, and help them grasp what they are seeing and hearing? There’s a culture of Chinese opera here in Singapore that has a strong following. The challenge is to find a way to do the same for Western opera. How do we make it more accessible and attractive? This takes a lot of effort and outreach.

Are there any artistic challenges when it comes to conducting this concert? Is there a particular piece in the concert’s repertoire that excites you?

There are always going to be artistic challenges in any concert. When you put on an opera gala, you’ll have singers, orchestra, and chorus, and that can be tricky to get all of these forces working together. Galas are also tricky in terms of performing music from many composers and that means being sensitive to different styles. There are many chunks of Verdi and Puccini that I will be looking forward to conducting for the first time.


Gala Concert 2018: A Pearl Celebration for Soprano Nancy Yuen will be held on 9 November 2018 at the Esplanade Concert Hall. Tickets from $40 via Sistic.

Dr Anant Narkkong on the Significance of Manohra

In the final interview of this series, Isaac Tan speaks to Dr Anant Narkkong, an ethnomusicologist from Thailand, on the significance of Manohra, and the collaborative process with Bhaskar’s Arts Academy. 

Dr Anant Narkkong (standing row: second from right) and composer Ghanavenothan Retnam (standing row: second from left), with musicians involved in Manohra. (Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Courtesy of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy)

What is the significance of the tale of Manohra as well as the dance drama to Thai culture?

The Jataka tale, Manohra, holds a very important place in Thai culture for both royal and folk arts. In the royal court, there was a position of royal playwright for a genre of theatre called Lakhon Nok  between the 16th-18th century (known as the Ayutthaya period). There were many forms of visual arts created around the story of Kinnaree/Manohra too, as seen by the sculptures and paintings of Kinnaree that decorate many famous temples and royal palaces.

The story of Manohra is a firm favourite within the Lakhon Nok canon. The theatrical elements of music and dance always win the hearts of audiences. The role of the female heroine, Manohra, in Thai Lakhon Nok is very important, and comparable to other male lead roles in other Lakhon stories.

In folk arts, especially in the Southern part of Thailand, Manohra, or in short “Nora”, has ritualistic significance such as a shaman in trance, dressed in human-bird (kinnaree) costume, singing and dancing to music and a particular rhythm. Southern Thai people also believe in the magical powers of Manohra. Somehow the male Nora/Kinnaree has a higher status than the female one, and has gained much respect from their society. I should also mention that there are  versions of Manohra in the Northeast Isaan and North Lanna regions. The performance elements differ from one place to another.

In modern Thai  or urban culture, we can still find Manohra depicted in many PR materials, advertisements, tourist spots, hotels, shopping plazas, fashion, and so on.

As an ethnomusicologist, do you see any similarities between music for Bharatanatyam and Thai classical dance? Did you work closely with composer Ghanavenothan Retnam on the music?

So much of the dance and musical relationship between India and Thailand can be seen through this process of collaboration. We share many similarities between our dance vocabularies: gestures, movements, rhythm, melody, emotions, and aesthetics. This also proves the long history of Indian culture that has existed in Southeast Asia, and how Thai artists in the past have adapted Indian  elements, as well as from other cultures, into our unique set of art forms.

I worked closely with Ghanavenothan Retnam in the process of music making, and with our dear Mrs Bhaskar in the choreography. I have learnt a lot from them and from their wonderful artists. It is a new experience to be able to  understand the beauty of Bharatanatyam and Raga-Tala, It was a real pleasure to share my knowledge and the ideas from my Thai artists with the Singapore team.

Has this collaboration made you look at the tale in a new way? 

It is a wonderful experience from an artistic and humanistic points of view. The arts always have a special impact on our hearts. In my earlier works I have reinterpreted the story and the destiny of Manohra by incorporating socio-political views such as human rights, feminism, and sex abuse. I have even made my own version of Manohra which did not follow the original storyline and it did not have a happy ending!

However, when we relearn the significance of Manohra through this particular production, it is a big inspiration and it motivates us to continue developing.

We—be it Singaporean, Thai, Kinnaree, or human—are born with differences in terms of ethnicity, politics, economics, language, religion, beliefs, environment, etc. But we can share and can live together. I wish the audiences of Singapore can find their inspiration from the love between Prince Sudhana and Princess Manohra in this regard.

Manohra runs from 8–9 September 2018 at Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets from Bhaskar’s Arts Academy.

Other Interviews from this Series: 

Mrs Santha Bhaskar on Manohra — A Singapore-Thailand Collaboration

Shruthilaya Ramachandran on Playing Manohra

Shruthilaya Ramachandran on Playing Manohra

Having interviewed Mrs Santha Bhaskar to find out more about Bhaskar’s Arts Academy’s (BAA) production of Manohra, I approached Shruthilaya Ramachandran to find out about her thoughts on playing the titular role.

Shruthilaya Ramachandran (left) as Manohra  and Puwapon Pinyolapkasam (right) as Prince Sudhana (Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Courtesy of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy)

How do you feel playing such an iconic role in Thai classical dance as well as BAA’s repertoire?

It is indeed an iconic role. I have to admit that I was a little daunted at first because I have watched BAA’s previous generation of dancers portray it so sincerely. Also, the level of sanctity and spirituality that the role holds in Thai culture does not make it any easier. I am honoured and happy to be selected for this role, and am grateful to my gurus who entrusted the role to me!

What are the similarities and differences in movement vocabulary between bharatanatyam and Thai classical dance?

It’s impossible to master the nuances of any art form  within such a short span of time. But based on what I managed to glean from the techniques taught by our fellow Thai dancers, I can safely say that both bharatanatyam and Thai dance seem to converge on laasya (grace), even though they are actualised in different ways.

In bharatanatyam, we tend to use movements that are more rounded, and they flow from one to the next by bending our body, hands, and legs. However, Thai dancers seem to keep their body, back, and shoulders upright, while still achieving the grace in their movements.

Both art forms also rely on mudras (hand gestures) to convey meaning. Some common ones between the two art forms include ‘suchi’, ‘pataaka’, ‘ardhachandra’, and ‘hamsaasya’. However, those are done with minimal or no facial expressions in Thai dance.

Another characteristic difference is the aramandi (bent knee) position. This is fully opened up in bharatanatyam, but executed in different degrees of openness in Thai dance. There is also an accompanying bounce or pulsating jerky accent that adds to the beauty of their movements.

Has this collaboration given you a renewed appreciation of your own art form?

This collaboration has certainly heightened my appreciation for bharatanatyam. I was already aware that both art forms could have drawn on common influences, and hence, share some similar movements. However, getting to directly interact with the art form by learning it from a Thai professional helps us see the nuances and unique differences that give it its identity.

Personally, a big takeaway from this collaboration is that, as dancers, we not only have to be physically agile and flexible, but mentally so as well. For example, it is very interesting to know that Thai dancers follow the rhythm being played, and they just seem to know when to strike a step or a movement without the use of a rigid eight-count system. It did take us a while to get accustomed to their musical style.

What was truly heartwarming was that the Thai dancers modified their teaching technique, and started counting in beats of eight to helps us learn the steps during training sessions. I am thankful for such amicable exchanges, which not only exposes me to new art forms, but it also enhances my understanding of my own art form, bharatanatyam!

Manohra runs from 8–9 September 2018 at Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets from Bhaskar’s Arts Academy.

Other Interviews from this Series:

Mrs Santha Bhaskar on Manohra — A Singapore-Thailand Collaboration

Dr Anant Narkkong on the Significance of Manohra

Mrs Santha Bhaskar on Manohra — A Singapore-Thailand Collaboration

Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Courtesy of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy

Over the past few years, Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (BAA) has been collaborating with various classical dance troupes in Southeast Asia, to create intercultural works based on stories from Asian myths and legends. 

For the third and final project, BAA is working with Thai classical dancers and musicians to stage Manohra, an iconic work in Thai dance drama. Artistic director of BAA, Mrs Santha Bhaskar first encountered it in 1990 and was inspired to reinterpret it using bharatanatyam. With this being the third iteration of the work, Manohra has become a key work in BAA’s repertoire. 

I interviewed Mrs Bhaskar to find out more about this iteration of the work. 

Mrs Santha Bhaskar

Manohra is part of a trilogy of works that sees BAA collaborating with other classical dance troupes from Southeast Asia. How did you go about choosing the works to be performed?

I enjoy reading the epics, myths and folktales and learning about the characters which are popular in Southeast Asia. It serves me well for experimenting and choreographing in the language I am comfortable with. Collaborating with our neighbouring artistes, understanding their culture, and sharing the knowledge with the audience has always been important to me and for BAA. 

The birth of “Vinayaka” was chosen when we collaborated with our Indonesian counterparts as the elephant-faced one is popular in that region. We actually collaborated twice—once with artistes from Bali with performance in Bali (2010) and the second time with artistes from Java with performance in Singapore (2016). It was very interesting for me and for my dancers and musicians to work with these two very different collaborators, and understand the similarities and differences in each style.

For the second work of the trilogy, we collaborated with Cambodian artistes. I chose to tell the story of Brihannala because it is not known to many people. It is about an interesting transgender character from the epic, Mahabharatha, who Arjuna transforms into. That helps him pose as a dance instructor in Virata’s kingdom for the final year of the Pandavas’ exile where they were to remain incognito.

You were first introduced to the tale of Manohra in 1990. What is it about the tale or the performance you saw that made you want to stage it over and over again?

The tale of Manohra touched my heart when I was in Bangkok. My mother used to tell me stories about the Ghandarvas (heavenly musicians) who enchant musicians and beautiful ladies on earth especially on a full moon night. She also told me stories about Kinnaris (heavenly birds) coming to earth to take a bath in a pond named Manasassaras.

In Bangkok I discovered the story of Manohra and was surprised that this story is not known to India. This is the reason I want to repeat this work—it is in the hope of passing the story on to the next generation of dancers and audience.

What makes this iteration of Manohra unique from the previous stagings by BAA?

The story itself is unique. With each staging of the work, more life courses through its veins, and more ideas sprout in how we can communicate the work to the audience. Some of the first and second generations of dancers are here to witness the tale’s transformations. For the third generation of dancers, their aspirations to learn the dance of the Kinnaris and to be a part of Manohra is coming true through this collaboration.

Manohra is one of BAA’s landmark works with original music composition and choreography. And now with our Thai partners, with the blending in of Thai music and Thai dance movements, the life and energy of the work transcends to a different level.

 

Manohra runs from 8–9 September 2018 at Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets from Bhaskar’s Arts Academy.

Other Interviews from this Series: 

Shruthilaya Ramachandran on Playing Manohra

Dr Anant Narkkong on the Significance of Manohra

[Interview] Pooja Nansi and Jessica Bellamy on Good Girls and Thick Beats

Photo: Joel Lim @ Calibre Pictures, Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

To kick off their 2018 season, Checkpoint Theatre presents Thick Beats for Good Girls. To find out what exactly are “thick beats” or “good girls”, I decided to interview writer-performers Pooja Nansi and Jessica Bellamy.

Both of you come from different cultures. What do you think is your culture’s view of what constitutes a good girl?

Jessica A good Jewish girl is respectful. She doesn’t draw too much attention to herself. She accepts the rules taught to her by her community. She is, of course, allowed to have fun, to express herself, to find joy—but she is also very aware of how her community might feel about some types of behaviour being more acceptable than others.

Pooja: A good Gujarati girl knows how to make the perfect rotli. She puts her community before herself and considers how others will see her before making choices in the way she dresses, who she dates and the things she chooses to say.

What was your first encounter when you were told or felt that you did not fit into society’s definition of a good girl?

Jessica:  Before I started making theatre, I was in a Jewish monoculture “bubble”. I went to a Jewish school and had Jewish friends. It was only when I took up student theatre in university that I encountered a much wider array of different personalities. Suddenly I realised there was a wider world out there than just being a good Jewish girl. And out here, I could do whatever I wanted.

Pooja:  When I was about eight years old, my maternal grandfather passed away and it was the first time I was told that women were not allowed to perform certain rites in the funeral. It was then that I realised that I lived in a world where women and men couldn’t do exactly the same things. But I remember thinking, “Who is going to stop me from doing exactly what I want?”

What was the first thick beat that you really resonated with? Why?

Pooja: It was hearing “Rumpshaker” by Wreckx-N-Effect at Killimanjaros on Boat Quay on the 27th of Nov 1998. It was my 18th birthday and I had never before experienced anything quite as euphoric as a whole room full of people chanting to the same beat and the same song.

Jessica:  Kanye West’s album, 808s & Heartbreaks, straddled too many genres for me not to notice it. It was an album of lovesick, heartbroken ballads. I knew that sort of music very well from the blues and roots music I loved. When I realised this music could be teamed with dexterous lyrics, cheek and swagger, I was sold.

While some hip-hop and gangster rap are expressions of protest, there are some that have themes of gratuitous violence and sex. Given your strong interests in social justice, how do you reconcile both sides of the genre?

Jessica: There’s nothing wrong with writing about violence or sex. The problem is performing violence as well as non-consensual sexuality. It is important for people to recognise that all rap artists have the ability to write fiction. Just because their lyrics are presented passionately or crudely doesn’t mean this particular person did those things. But, evoking a world where people behave in this way is important, because it does exist. It holds a mirror to life, where the colour of your skin might determine the education you receive, your treatment by the criminal justice system, and your ability to survive a traffic stop. Like the best literature, rap music forces us to think deeply about our values.

Pooja: If you are living in a community in which you constantly feel the threat of violence and aggression against yourself and against the people that you love, it’s not surprising that the art that you make would reflect this reality.

I think the question we need to ask is: What’s the bigger problem? The violence in the lyrics, or the fact that there are entire communities in that position to begin with? I also think that sometimes when you’re up against a wall, the only way to exact change is to skip the perfunctory polite conversations and use anger instead. Writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde says that anger expressed and translated into action, in the service of our future, is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification. Anger can be a powerful source of information and energy, and that for me is hip-hop at its best.

While both of you are no strangers to theatre, you are primarily known as writers. What is one thing that actors can learn from writers and vice versa?

Pooja: I am discovering the ridiculous amount of stamina you need as an actor!

Jessica: And in particular: actors who can also dance! HOW DO THEY DO IT?

Pooja: There’s also that interesting tension between thinking about the text as a performer and wanting to constantly tweak it as a writer. The thing about wearing both hats is that you can keep shaping the piece infinitely, which can be both exhilarating and exhausting.

Jessica: Any creative process is a beautiful tussle however, and I’m enjoying this internal tussle very much.

As this is a very personal play, are there any personal discoveries about yourself or each other that have arisen in the course of rehearsals?

Jessica: Pooja introduced me to her hairdresser and I love him. Now I have to fly to Singapore every time I want my hair cut.

Pooja: Jess wears print on print with so much swagger, it is ridiculous.

What is one thick beat that everyone should listen to right now?

Jessica: Nicki Minaj’s “Feeling Myself”. It’s an essential reminder for self-love during a time of struggle.

Pooja: Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”. It’s the hope we all need in a difficult time.

Thick Beats for Good Girls runs from 5–22 April 2018 at Drama Centre Black Box, National Library. Tickets from Sistic.

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 .

Mrs_Santha_Bhaskar

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.