Sunday, August 8, 2010

National Day Special - Singers of Singapore's Past

In celebration of our nation’s 45 year of independence, The Mad Scene brings you our National Day Special, a tribute to singers who have made significant contributions to Singapore's cultural life and paved the way for future generations to rise. The singers mentioned are no longer active onstage and some have passed away, but the influence they inflected since their heyday have made a difference to Singapore’s cultural life.

As for how materials for this article came about, well I simply rounded up my pair of old-timers, ST and Christopher (who have both submitted articles for this blog), for a cup of tea and got them to talk about the good ol’days. They were both happy to help ot, with the disclaimer that everything shared is based solely on memory and therefore are not to be taken as hard facts. If you have more reliable information or have heard any of these singers perform, whether in person or on recordings, do share your thoughts with us in the comments.

The now demolished Singapore National Theatre 

The Opera Scene of the 70s
Although the SLO only came about in the mid-80s and the SSO in the late 70s, Singapore wasn’t quite the musical desert that we thought it was. Concerts at the Singapore National Theatre (which has since been demolished), the Singapore Conference Hall and Victoria Concert Hall abound. In those days of variety shows and pre-internet era, its fairly easy to get spots performing on TV and radio programs, doing classical or ‘arty’ material no less!

Also, the NUS back then boasted of a music department, which produced the occasional opera production in the mid-70s, including a rare opera by Weber called Abu Hassan, as well as some Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. However this music department was closed in the mid-80s due to changes in public mindset for more 'pragmatic' education. As we now know, the NUS music department was only revived recently with generous contributions from a certain Mr Yong Siew Toh. In addition, one of the earlier SSO seasons in the mid-80s included a concert performance of Fidelio with a primarily local cast (more on that later).

So here is a short introduction to the famous singers of yesteryear…

Ling Li (林麗)
Ling Li was one of the most famous coloratura of Singapore in the 70s. Some people even refer to her as Singapore’s Joan Sutherland, as their careers occured at the same period, and she sang many arias and songs that the international rising star was making popular, such as the Bell Song from Lakme. She started out as lounge singers but then went to Europe for serious classical studies. Besides bel canto, she also flexed her dramatic muscles in popular Puccini arias, abeit with piano accompaniment, and received many good reviews in the papers.

After a brief hiatus, she tried to make comeback in mid-80s, conducting the NTUC choir during a concert that was also the Singapore premiere of the Yellow River Cantata. This piece was previously banned by the government for its associations with the Chinese Communist Party. Thus the concert had very high profile and she scored good reviews. However by that time her voice was quite worn. With no children to support her, she passed away in the 90s under terrible medical circumstances that brings the last act of La Traviata to mind.

The Mad Scene is unable to find Ling Li singing any operatic excerpts, but here’s a video of a pop record that she made:

Liang Mei-Ling 梁美玲
Not much is known about her from our two contributors, except that she was one of the first Singaporeans to make an opera career in the UK in the 1980s singing Madama Butterfly (what else...). She rarely performs in Singapore, understandably considering how small the scene was back then, but was one of the pioneers to make it overseas.

Alex Abisheganaden

Does the last name sound familiar? That’s because he is Jacintha’s father! Active since the Japanese occupation as a singer (bass), double bass player and classical guitarist (the latter for whom he is most known for), he sang a lot of oratorios and concert works with the NUS choir in addition to his own lieder concerts. He is also a regular feature on the weekly Thursday public concert (大眾音樂會)sponsored by the then Ministry of Culture (now MCYS) where tickets are sold at $1 each. Its not a smooth, silky type of sound as he tends to push a lot, but it is a bright, metallic, penetrating sound. For his contributions to the arts, Alex Abisheganaden was awarded the cultural medallion in 1988.

The Four Chen Brothers
Before twin tenors David and Jonathan Charles Tay came on the scene, the four Chen brothers were Singapore’s most famous classical family act. They are by seniority Chen Yan-Hou (陳仰厚), Chen Yang-An (陳仰安), Xhen Yang-He (陳仰和) and Chen Yang-Feng (陳仰豐), four bass-baritones in the family. They were a popular feature in the TV Talentime competition, performing Chinese art songs and operatic arias, when there was a segment devoted to art songs. Though known as a group, they perform individually as well and made many records together.

Chen Mei-Guang 陳美光

Viewers who saw Chen Mei-Guang at the Star Awards a few years back got a big surprise when she announced, upon receiving her Lifetime Achievement Award as a TV Actress, that she is “in bad health, can no longer walk, but still can sing”, and then belted out a bunch of stunning high notes. Younger folks know her mostly for her grandma roles on TV, but older folks know of her as a popular coloratura soprano in her day. She was able to get many gigs showing off her high notes on radio and TV, although her repertoire was limited to Chinese art songs with preference given to those with coloratura. Despite having serious pitching problems, audiences are invariably won over by her stage charisma and enthusiastic delivery.

Joy Chen (陳毓申)and Tian Ming En (田鸣恩)

Joy Chen (陳毓申)and Tian Ming En (田鸣恩) are a husband and wife team who are extremely prominent within the Chinese educated circles (at that time the English and Chinese educated are two different “sects” with separate culrural identities). Trained in the Santa Cecelia Conservatory in Italy, they have taught many teachers and conducted many school and amateur choirs. Tian was a light tenor while Joy was a soprano with dramatic heft. Their concert repertoire was mostly Chinese art songs as demanded by audiences of the day.

Choo Hwee Lim

A baritone who has taught many students including Lim Yau, also conducted the NUS Choir and directed a mid-80s production of La Traviata by SLO before they were known as the SLO, starring Leow Siak Fah as Alfredo. More importantly, he has also educated a whole generation of opera listeners with his two popular radio programs of opera highlights and full recordings on FM92.4. These programs are noted for his fantastic taste in choosing recordings as well as his simple explanations on what was so beautiful about each piece, teaching audiences what they should be listening for. He was awarded the cultural medallion in 1992.
ST - “I used to tune in every week; and I would record his programs on cassette and listen to them as I was doing my homework.”

Leow Siak Fah
Many know of Mr Leow Siak Fah as the star tenor in the early years of the SLO as well as its principal founder, together with a board consisting of current chairman Toh Weng Cheong and Lim Yau. While opinions of his singing remain divided (I have personally never heard him sing a complete opera live), Singapore's opera scene would not be what it is today without Mr Leow’s tireless contributions to the art form in artistic, production and financial areas. It could be said that he laid the foundation for today’s wonderful SLO productions.

Here is a video of Liew Siak Fah singing in the Desmond Moey musical Peter and Pierre with Leslie Tay:

And speaking of Maestro Lim Yau…

Lim Yau

That’s right, we are referring to Maestro Lim Yau, more popularly known nowadays as the associate conductor and chorus master of the SSO and artistic director of The Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Orchestra. However, this article is about singers who are no longer active onstage and so Maestro Lim certainly fits the bill. He has had a short-lived but prominent career as a singer, most notably a stint in the Bayreuth chorus. Singaporeans got to hear him sing The Minister in the aforementioned early 80s SSO concert performance of Fidelio. He had a good baritone and sang quite musically although the voice is very small. The Marzelline and Leonore and Florenstan and Rocco are rather huge, so they all drowned him out in the big finale numbers. So its probably a good idea that he switched to conducting instead, his track record in this area seems just slightly better than in singing…


So yeah, that concludes our National Day tribute to singers of yore. Have any of these singers made a difference to your life? Please share your stories with our younger readers in the comments!

1 comment:

  1. An excellent article for National Day! Even I didn't know the pre-SLO opera scene in Singapore, which was dominated by the Chinese speaking community.

    You might also like to include the contributions by Loh Siew Tuan, Tan Peng Tuan, David Lim who were also singers from the English-speaking community. I never heard them, but heard of them!
    You haven't heard LSF in his full glory? You haven't really lived then!

    BTW, Yong Siew Toh was a miss. The donation came from her family (CJ Yong Pung How's family), which also donated to the Yong Loo Lin Medical School at NUS.


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