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.

[Listing] Opera in the Park 2018

The Singapore Lyric Opera brings opera outdoors once again on 23 June 2018, 6 p.m., at the Shaw Foundation Symphony Stage, Singapore Botanic Gardens.

Celebrating the 11th season of its outreach programme, SLO aspires to bring the opera experience to a wider audience through this free outdoor event. This collaboration with SPH Gift of Music Series allows an environment that encourages everyone from all walks of life to join in and immerse themselves in opera music while having a picnic with family and friends. This breaks the formal barrier of a traditional opera setting and brings opera closer to the audience.

2018 is a very special year as it marks the 200th and 100th anniversaries of two special composers—Charles Gounod and Leonard Bernstein respectively. The programme line-up for this year features several classics from these two legends including Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, Faust; and Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, West Side Story. Another popular favourite, Verdi’s Aida, would also be performed.

Joshua Tan, an emerging star conductor from Singapore, will lead the Orchestra. The concert will also feature soloists from the SLO–Leow Siak Fah Artists Training Programme: Cherie Tse, Zhang Jie, Chieko Sato, Zerlina Tan, Jack Sun, and Dennis Lau. The SLO Chorus and Children Choir will also make a guest appearance at the concert.

Programme
Now in its 11th year, Opera in the Park celebrates the anniversaries of Gounod & Bernstein, with a selection of classical favorites you don’t want to miss.

Gounod   Romeo et Juliette
• Overture
• Je veux vivre (soprano)

Gounod   Faust
• The Jewel Song (soprano)
• Avant de quitter ces lieux (baritone)
• Faites-lui mes aveux (mezzo)
• Soldiers Chorus

Bernstein   Trouble in Tahiti
• What a movie (mezzo)

Bernstein   West Side Story
• I feel pretty (soprano)
• America (soprano, mezzo)
• Tonight quintet

Verdi   Aida
• Gloria all’Egitto (SLO Chorus)
• Egyptian March
• Vieni, o guerriero vindice (SLO Chorus)

Programme not in order of performance
Artists and Programme subject to change
This concert is subject to weather conditions
Concert-goers are advised to take public transport

FREE ADMISSION

Sponsored by
Singapore Press Holdings
SPH Gift of Music Series

A First Serious Encounter with Carnatic Music

Swathi Orchestra musicians with their mentors.

Due to my earlier acquaintances with Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (BAA), I was recently invited to attend Sangeetha Sagaram, a Carnatic concert by BAA’s Swathi Orchestra. While it was not my first time listening to Carnatic music, my previous encounters have always been in the context of a dance performance. As such, it is my first time simply listening to the music and letting it speak for itself.

Established in 2015 with the aim of promoting the growth of Carnatic music in Singapore, the orchestra consists of some music students from BAA’s education arm, Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society. It comprises 13 performers: five vocalists (Greeshmah Paramesuaran, Keerthana Babu Gopakumar Nair, Lalitha Rajandran, Sathiyan Sahana, Sreelakshimi Subramaniam), two vainikas (Preetashini Nagarajah and Raja Sankar Vasudha Sankar), two violinists (C Abhilash Mohan and Vismitha Rajeev), two flautists (Kalaiselvam Panesilvam and Logindran Govindarasu), and two percussionists (Arul Kumaran Gun Shekeran and Prashanth TR).

The concert has eight items, and as with tradition, it opens with a Varnam. Composed by Tachur Singarachari, it starts with the violin before the mridangam and kanjira enter with a strong rhythm. Such a counterpoint encapsulates the beauty of Carnatic music—the instruments have a distinct function, and while the different timbres and rhythms played appear to be in conflict, they somehow come together quite beautifully.

In “Sri Sakala Ganadhipa” by Balamuralikhrishna, which is a devotional song that invokes Ganesha, Hanuman, and Sri Krishna, we have a meditative invocation by the flute. That is mirrored by the vocalists in the starting portion, before picking up the pace of what turned out to be a vibrant and delightful song.

Speaking of vocalists, “Paripalayamam” by Swathi Thirunal, a famous Maharajah in the 19th century, best illustrates the difficulties that the vocalists have to deal with. This devotional may appear simple with its repetitions, but the singers have to be absolutely stable in maintaining the tempo, and not be carried away by the intoxicating drumming. Furthermore, the vocal ornamentations, such as the bending and oscillations of the notes, seemed to be subtler in this piece. However, I am happy to report that vocalists managed to meet the demands quite admirably.

My favourite piece of the whole repertoire has to be “Kapali” by Papanasam Sivan as various sections of the ensemble are given a little solo to show off their musicianship. The song starts off with a relatively simple but soulful melody. But the mettle of the musicians was soon tested as there are a few quick passages that required some coordination across the various sections, and they were handled with aplomb.

While it is generally known that musicians are required to improvise within certain constraints, it was impossible to tell which sections were actually improvised as they all seemed so intricate and well-coordinated. Perhaps, that is a testament to the skill of this young orchestra, as the concert leaves any outsider wishing they had more knowledge of what was going on, or the meaning of the words, so that they could appreciate it at a deeper level.

Swathi Orchestra is certainly off to a good start, and one hopes that it will grow and continue to nurture the next generation of local Carnatic musicians.

Sangeetha Sagaram was performed on 18 March 2018 at Goodman Arts Centre Black Box.

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

[Listing] Singapore Lyric Opera’s 2016 Opera Ball

SLO Opera Ball
Singapore Lyric Opera is dedicating it’s annual Opera Ball this year to its late founding chairman, Mr. Leow Siak Fah. The event will be held at the St. Regis Hotel, John Jacob Ballroom on Friday, 11th March 2016.
 
This special evening will feature excerpts from operas fondly associated with Mr. Leow – including well-known operas like “O Sole Mio,”  “Granada,” and concert favourite “Mattinata“. This year’s exciting line-up includes SLO’s first Honorary Artistic Director, Nancy Yuen, as well as tenor extraordinaires Peter Ong,Melvin Tan and Reuben Lai, accompanied by distinguished local pianist, Rena Phua. The late chairman’s wife herself, Dr Ling Ai Ee, will be the guest pianist while their grand daughter, Caitlyn Tan, will be making a special appearance singing “Never Never Land” from Peter Pan.
 
Gracing the event will be Guest-of-Honour, SLO’s Patron-In-Chief, Mr. S R Nathan who has been very supportive of SLO’s work and whose presence has been a great source of encouragement for the institution. 
 
Part of the proceeds from the event will contribute to the establishment of the “SLO – Leow Siak Fah Young Artists Programme“, a performance-based training programme to support the artistic development of talented young Singaporean singers, providing opportunities for them to hone their craft and gain experience on the professional stage. In addition, the SLO is initiating the inaugural “SLO – ASEAN Vocal Competition 2016” – a competition open to citizens and permanent residents in the ASEAN regions which will help talent spot singers of all ages in the region, establishing Singapore as a singing hub. The final will take place on the 2nd of October 2016, on our very own little red dot. 
For booking information, visit Singapore Lyric Opera’s website.

[Listing] Winter Wonderland by Singapore Lyric Opera’s Children’s Choir

Winter Wonderland

With a bit of sparkly tinsel and a sprinkling of snow, the beautiful merry voices of the children from SLO, proudly present- Winter Wonderland! Under the baton of choral conductor Ms Rose Loh, and accompanied by pianist Aloysius Foong, this year the SLO Children’s Choir together with Project W, a Singaporean musical ensemble of 20 musicians, are all set to entertain you with an eclectic mix of songs.

What is a Winter Wonderland concert without tunes from the famous “Frozen” phenomenon, popularised by Disney? Highlights of our programme include the enchanting Frozen theme song, Eatnemen Vuelie by Norwegian musician Frode Fjellheim and not forgetting, the global musical epidemic, “Let It Go”. The children will also be singing traditional favourites that reflect the wonders and emotions of the winter season, both sacred and secular. These include Italian carol Dormi Dormi, Mary Where Is Your Baby, composed by Dan Edwards and This Little Babe a movement from Benjamin Britten’s, A Ceremony of Carols. In support of our local talent, SLOCC will also be presenting two Singaporean compositions.

So do join us for a fantastical paradise as the children spread festive cheer and herald the good tidings of Christmas!

Programme List

A Cuckoo Flew Out of the Woods              arr. B Wayne Bisbee

Dormi Dormi                                                       arr. Mary Goetze

Rise Up, Shepherd and Follow                     arr. Mark Hahn

Mid-Winter                                                          Bob Chilcott

This Little Babe                                                   Benjamin Britten

O Great Mystery                                                 Nancy Telfer

All Things Bright and Beautiful                    Phillip Silvey

Land of Joy                                                            Zechariah Goh

Little Tree                                                               Daniel Drewbaker

Gonna Catch That Santa                                Andy Beck

For the Beauty of the Earth                           John Rutter

INTERVAL

Special Item by Project W Sin Jin How

When All the World Is Full of Snow          David V Montoya

Hanget Soi (Singing Snow)                            arr. AuvoSamanto

Let It Go                                                                  arr. MacHuff

Frozen (Choral Suite)                                        adapted by Roger Emerson

In Summer                                                             arr. Alan Billingsley

Christmas Is (Sing-along)                                arr. MacHuff

 

Catch Winter Wonderland on 5 December 2015 at SOTA Concert Hall. For more ticketing information, visit Sistic.

[Listing] Singapore Lyric Opera’s 25th Anniversary Gala Concert

SLO 25

This November, Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO) is excited to celebrate its 25th anniversary in the Esplanade Concert Hall with its greatest Gala Concert yet.

In celebration of this momentous occasion, multi-award winning local conductor, Joshua Kangming Tan, will lead the orchestra and singers in a night to remember with highlights and excerpts from over 20 operas staged by SLO in the last quarter century from the great composers – Mozart, Puccini, Lehar, Verdi, and including Singapore’s own, Leong Yoon Pin.

After 25 successful years of presenting some of the best western operas, SLO celebrates its silver jubilee with a sumptuous programme put together by Nancy Yuen, SLO’s first Honorary Artistic Director, reprising her role as the lead soprano for this year’s concert.

Joining Nancy Yuen on the stage will be some of the region’s best opera singers including, internationally acclaimed South Korean tenor, Lee Jae Wook and veteran Singaporean mezzo-soprano, Anna Koor. The line-up will also include two baritones extraordinaire, South Korean Song Kee Chang and our very own, Martin Ng.

Some of the excerpts and highlights include:

Hai già vinta la causa from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro

E lucevan le stele from Puccini’s Tosca

Votre toast from Bizet’s Carmen

Les voici from Bizet’s Carmen

Che gelida manina from Puccini’s La Bohème

O soave fanciulla from Puccini’s La Bohème

Vogliatemi bene from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly

Nessun dorma from Puccini’s Turandot

Catch SLO’s 25th Anniversary Gala Concert on 13 November 2015 at Esplanade Concert Hall. For more ticketing information, visit Sistic.

The Mad Chinaman Returns!

MAD CHINAMAN COVER 002

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.

[Review] Lea Salonga Sings With Her Heart on Her Sleeve

lea salonga concert

Lea Salonga in Concert

22 May 2015

Esplanade Concert Hall

Run: 22-23 May 2015

“It’s ok if you don’t understand a single word,” assures Salonga before a medley of Filipino songs, “we as a people wear our hearts on our sleeves.” With a programme comprising pop songs, jazz, Disney, and show tunes, there is undoubtedly a lot of heart in her renditions.

From the opening jazz number, Feelin’ Good, she makes her approach to the songs clear. Rather than taking this opportunity to pull out all the stops and belt it out in its full jazzy glory, she decides to sing it straight—no frills, just music.

She lets the effort and ingenuity of the composers, lyricists, and the arranger (who happens to be her brother, Gerard Salonga) do the talking. And she backs them up by displaying an exquisite sense of control and technique.

She moves across various registers effortlessly—her high notes are not shrill but really powerful while every word can be heard when she sings in the lower register. She sustains her long notes very well while colouring it with a gorgeous vibrato. With such skill, who needs to engage in vocal gymnastics to prove a point?

Despite her straightforward approach, she does not lack in showmanship. While the concert hall has seen grand recitals, Salonga’s candour and personality turns the sizeable space into an intimate one. Despite her fame, she is open with anecdotes from her personal life and has no qualms about teasing her brother. No shout-out from the audience is left unanswered. In fact, she encourages it and one lucky chap, Kim, got to be Aladdin for the night in A Whole New World.

One of the highlights has got to be songs from Les Misérables. Having played Eponine and Fantine, singing One My Own or I Dreamed a Dream would be a natural choice. Being a crowd-pleaser, she sings a medley of both songs. Being familiar with the songs, I thought it would be quite difficult to merge them without an abrupt break. However, that is where the brilliance of music director Gerard Salonga comes in as the transition felt natural and well chosen.

Aside from pleasing the crowd, I realise that putting both songs together should be a natural choice. Both characters are roughly about the same age when they sing their respective songs and they are about lost loves. While Fantine is utterly dejected by the end of her song, both girls still dream about having their men by their side.

It is such a beautiful coincidence that my first introduction to Salonga is through the 10th Anniversary concert DVD and now, the Salongas—both Lea and Gerard—have given me a renewed appreciation of the musical.

Despite listening to a slew of crowd favourites, what really got to me was Mr Bojangles. Salonga prefaces the song by sharing an anecdote about young Robin Williams being a mime at Central Park, New York. Days after his death, his friend who was his fellow mime then wrote a touching tribute. While I was hoping that she gave her own personal anecdote of Williams, her soulful rendition of the song really got me in knots. All I could think of was: please Mr Bojangles, just one more dance?

Clearly, Salonga’s artistry does not just lie in her singing but also in the way she plans her programme and introduces them.

The lady sitting beside me, who unfortunately decides to sing along with Salonga for a quarter of the programme, remarks that Salonga is mesmerising. While I cannot agree with her singing, I wholeheartedly concur with her opinion.