Sunday, August 8, 2010

Melvin Tan Discusses "Night Songs" Recital

Tenor Melvin Tan takes the stage again in his recital Night Songs, premiering no less than 3 song cycles in Singapore. He discusses with The Mad Scene on the importance of premiering new works here and advice to younger recitalists:

The Mad Scene: You tend to come up with some interesting programs including the one . What is your approach when it comes to programming a recital?

Melvin: For many singers, the often "easy way out" is to just pick pieces from what you already have sung elsewhere and throw it together, but this often leads to an incoherent, artistically jumbled recital.

I love to challenge myself and there are these significant almost-totemic or talismanic works of the Art Song genre (and also operatic roles) that I aspire to perform. So each year I have (and intend to continue) performing at least a couple of these works. Picking one of these works, I would then shape the rest of my repertoire choices along a theme that relates to it.

Last year the focal point was Vaughan William's On Wenlock Edge (which I will touch on later in this interview) and programming it with 3 of Britten's Canticles made sense as they each dealt with a form of love that transcended a particularly profound boundary: life and death, narcissism, God and Father and Child.

The themes of the pieces performed are important and they have to flow and gel coherently.

This year, I decided to challenge myself with Berg's sensuous and sublime 7 Early Songs as a starting point, and programmed Korngold's Songs of Farewell and Rachmaninov's Op 38 along with it.

Mostly set at night, these songs portray night as a time where the normal rules of day are inverted, where the sense of loss (especially of a loved one) is most acute but also the time when the potential of hopes and dreams are at their most powerful.

The Mad Scene: You are premiering no less than 3 song cycles in this recital, something you have done often in previous concerts. Is premiering new works important to you?

Melvin: Premiering new work in Singapore is very important to me. Very often these works are widely known and performed in Europe and overseas but Singaporean audiences have not had the chance to hear them being performed live yet.

In fact, some of these works have already had their heyday in Europe and the USA and are starting to fall out of favour without Singaporeans having had a chance to hear them.

The song repertoire is incredibly boundless. Unlike in opera, where one might make the bulk of a career with 12 roles, limited by voice type (fach), the song repertoire allows so much freedom in the choice of repertoire. Personally, I eschew Art Song works that are performed often, preferring to focus on interesting thematic programming and new works to a Singaporean audience.

Singapore is still an infant when it comes to classical (vocal) music. Bear in mind that the Singapore premiere of one of the most widely performed operas in the world: Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) had its Singapore premiere in 2006. I feel it is almost an artistic duty to present these key works of the genre to local audiences.

The Mad Scene: How do you find out if a piece has not been performed in Singapore?

Melvin: One encyclopedic source of knowledge is my frequent collaborator Shane Thio who knows and has charted the performance of Art Song in Singapore since he was a student in the 60s.

For example, last year when I performed Britten's On this Island, it was he who told me it was first performed in Singapore in the 1980s (he did tell me the year which I forgot) by English Tenor Neil Mackie.

He has a well-connected network base in the classical music world in Singapore and can find out these facts easily. What makes things simpler is that there are not so many art song recitals in Singapore in the past, with things changing rapidly for the better. I counted at least 7 in the last 2 months! A bounty of song after decades of drought!

The Mad Scene: Tenor David Charles Tay will be performing Vaughan William's On Wenlock Edge on 10 August (check out my Events Page), a piece you've premiered in Singapore at your recital Transcendent Love last year. Any advice to give him?

Melvin: Aside from the obvious technical difficulties, in On Wenlock Edge, the singer has the added musical minds of the string quartet to factor in the mix. It is very important that the singer keeps control and focuses everyone to the common cause. I find it helps to take the time to read the text out to the players and draw them into your world and to impart to them a sense of what you are trying to express and transmit to your audience.

It is a piece, I ,at times, found difficult to characterize. Although after some analysis, the poems whilst ostensibly spoken by a man in the later years of his life, could be sung as a young man who has met a premature end, possibly on the battlefields. In fact, in World War I, these poems struck a very resonant chord, with all the lingering nostalgia and homesickness of soldiers away from England. No.3 Is my team ploughing? is especially challenging as one has to inhabit 2 opposing roles in a short space of time: the (ghostly) voice of a dead man in conversation with the man who has stolen his sweetheart in his absence.

Most importantly, and it is something my teacher (Diane Forlano) has always drummed into me and it applies to any performance:

Never take performing for granted, remember how lucky we are to stand, beside a piano, in front of an audience and present to them these works. It is an immense privilege to be able to sing these works of musical genius therefore the performance cannot be inconsequential. Everything your mouth utters has a consequence that you control. Make the words come alive.

The Mad Scene: What will you be wearing for us at this recital?

I try to tailor a new outfit for performance every 2-3 years. Male singers have a tougher time trying to wear something striking and different but I have found a tailor in Singapore who does very good work and is willing to collaborate and make things just that bit differently. To that end he has made for me (with my input) a morning coat with a lapel that can be worn down in the traditional way but also buttoned up to give it an eastern silhouette, almost like a modified mandarin collar. Oh yes and it is lined in red! So you can see glimpses of red in the tails.

The Mad Scene: Lastly, why should we all attend Night Songs?

Melvin: Night Songs is a moving and sublime recital of art songs from the early 20th century. Come and be transported to a fantastical vision of the Night with all the pangs of loss and dreams of hope that come with it.


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