Thursday, December 30, 2010

12 Years of "Believe"

OK this is not really opera related but eh, just humour me this time...

Cos it was in the last few months of 1998 that a song would go on to become one of the greatest phenomenons of pop-culture, going to number 1 in the charts of 26 countries and on the playlist of many more countries. All this from a woman in her 50s whom many has written off as a has-been.

I remember it so clearly: back in my secondary school days, someone who would become my best friend for many years introduced me to this D-list celeb named Cher. We weren't in any way the "cool kids", and no one else understood or wanted to know what we were talking about. Flamboyant, out-spoken and no-nonsense with decades of experience in singing and acting and yet hidden from the mainstream, Cher was a great idol to us that no one else had gotten, and we wouldn't want it any other way. She was our best kept secret and knowing her work made us smarter than the rest of the world.

So when we heard on the internet earlier in mid-1998 that Cher would be releasing a new CD of dance songs, we honestly had no big expectations for it. It would be called Believe, and the title-track would be the first single. In our minds, it would probably be a great song and album that few people would appreciate and no one else would hear about.

And then Believe went to number one on the UK charts! So taken aback was her record company who had such low expectations that not even a music video was made to promote the album, that a montage of her past videos was hastily cobbled together while a proper video was filmed. The song would proceed to dominate the charts for a total of 7 weeks, beating out Celine Dion's phenomenally successful Titanic theme song My Heart Will Go On at the last minute to become the most successful single of the UK in 1998. In early 1999 the rest of the world finally caught on and it became number 1 in 26 countries, including the most important charts: America's Billboard Top 100.

Needless to say, Believe went to number 1 in Singapore as well. The song was heard EVERYWHERE! All of a sudden, it became cool to know everything about Cher. Having supported her for so long, my friend and I felt like we were at the centre of attention everytime the song is played on the radio, CD store or canteen jukebox, feeling that we have started a trend long ago that everyone else is only now following.

This surreal episode taught me that one is never too old to be successful even in the image-conscious music business, that perseverance, tenacity and continued hard-work does count, and that one can be true to oneself instead of being someone else in order to be popular.

Anyway, its been 12 years since that phenominal episode and Believe remains one of my favourite songs till this day; and with Burlesque about to open worldwide, its good to know that Cher will return to the mainstream once again. This guy who won a contest on Oprah explains what it is that Cher inspires in so many of her fans around the world:

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Messiah by the Voices of the East Indies - 22 Dec 2010

Merry Christmas to every reader of The Mad Scene! For our Christmas special here's an account of the Voices of the East Indies's performance of Messiah, as written by a new contributor Hawk Liu:


Handel – Messiah
Yap Shing Min – soprano
Phua Ee Kia – countertenor
Melvin Tan – tenor
William Lim – bass
The Voices and Orchestra of the East Indies,
Ng Tian Hui - conductor

22nd December 2010
The Chamber, The Arts House at Old Parliament House

A Review by Hawk Liu

I had the occasion to attend a most enjoyable performance of Handel’s Messiah with the almost complete Part One and some selections from Part Two and Three. First, the choice of the The Chamber as a performance venue is a really good one. The small forces, with 3 to 4 voices per part in the chorus and 2 to 3 pieces per part in the orchestra made a great sound in the venue. The sound was warm and distrubuted nicely. In the chorus, the sopranos were good and blending well together. The altos were steady most of the time but might be a little weak in some passages due to the range, but true altos are hard to come by in Singapore. As to the balance of male – female voices, even with 3 per part for men and 4 per part for women, the men over powered the women easily. I wonder if putting the men behind the women might have helped the balance more.

A special highlight for me is For unto us a child is born, because at this point I feel that all the performance elements started to work really well after what I thought was a rocky start (in terms of blending) by the tenor and bass sections in the first 2 choruses. It didn’t help when the tenors had much brighter voices compared to the basses.

As for the Hallelujah Chorus – it was great! Considering the small forces used, it was a big sound. This was one number where the brighter tones of the tenors helped. The sopranos certainly didn’t let up either with their ascendings ‘king of kings’ section. What a joy. Even the lack of  timpanis went unnoticed amidst the ra ra everyone was providing. It was only toward the end of the number that I noticed how the mid range and lower mid pitches were missing. As usual, the audience obeyed the tradition of getting onto their feet during the chorus. Well, not everyone did – there were renegades, like myself. I was just keeping to the spirit of the baroque phenomenon of innovation and experimentation by sitting down when others are following traditions…

The orchestra, despite it’s small size, gave a confident performance. They provided a warm sound throughout. I must comment, however, that having less than 4 per part, particularly in the strings, would pose problems with pitch blending and there was certainly a number of places where that was the case. I do like how the oboes helped the orchestra blend the sound together with their steady tones. Well done. Not all ran well though – at one point, the lower strings were out of sync with the rest of the orchestra, having lost their place in the score for quite a number of bars in one of the chorus numbers.But I am pleased to note that the chorus went on as strong as ever as if nothing had happened. They went on without losing their intensity of performance and of course everyone came together at the end. Special mention goes to the principal violinist for playing the rock solid accompaniment in some of the arias. I have never heard solo accompaniments in the many Messiahs I have ever heard and this was certainly very refreshing. Thanks for making it happen. There is one doubt in my mind about the use of the double bass in this particularly small ensemble. Although it added a firm lower sound in the chorus numbers, I did wish it wasn’t used in the arias, especially in the ones where the solo violin and solo cello were used – just a question of tonal balance.

At the beginning of the concert, 3 soloists appeared during the walk-in, which left me wondering where the soprano was. Anyhow, Melvin Tan the tenor gave a fearless run of the 2 opening solo numbers. It’s a bright sound and his higher vocal tessitura lent itself well to the music, especially in Ev'ry valley and Thou shalt break them. The latter number was heroic and Melvin certainly convinced us that ‘thou wouldst DASH them’ with the final high A on the word. There were interesting embellishments used too. Yes, all the melismas went splendidly, not a beat was missed. Oh, diction was immaculate. There was a slight accident of placement for a mere split second in comfort ye but it was just a mere split second. Special mention must be made of the fact that after his solos Melvin walked briskly to the chorus to join in for all the chorus numbers during the performance!

The next soloist that sang was William Lim. With steady, warm and expressive tones, he gave a stable performance for all his arias. Thus saith the Lord was thoroughly enjoyable with all the runs in place. Certainly a version I would listen to again. In For behold, darkness shall cover the earth I did wish it was a more intense start in terms of dynamics. Personally, I would have like a bit more vocal sound in the first phrases of the number. It did get more intense at the end of the phrase ‘but the Lord shall arise’. A later number, Why do the nations, was intense thoughout – I like ‘intense’ singing, and isn’t baroque music all about passion and affective expressions? Oh, yes, bravo to William, for doing the last phrase in Why do the nations without a stop for breath, or did you trick us into believing you didn’t breathe? Thoroughly enjoyable arias, except for once in both Thus saith the Lord and Why do the nations where the conductor and singer were trying to coordinate tempi in the melismas. I would have preferred if the orchestra just played thru in strict tempi for those 2 spots. The tempo in The people who walked in darkness is just right –  A good collaboration of the forces!

But who may abide the day of His coming is my favourite number from Messiah and I had looked forward to hearing it. Ee Kia, the countertneor, had beautiful sweet tones and made the aria lovely to listen to. My friend was in tears listening to the voice. That being said, there was slight sychronising problems with the orchestra in the middle of the prestissimo section but he recovered well. I was particularly delighted with the inclusion of the very rare version of Thou art gone up on high sung by Ee Kia. I have heard countless versions of Messiah and never came across this version of the aria. What a treat! Thanks to Ee Kia and also to conductor Tian Hui for choosing to do this version!

The mystery of the missing soprano was solved when Shing Min walked down to the soloist’s position from the chorus for the narrative of the nativity story. Her vocal projection was bigger than her small frame. Diction was immaculate. The timbre was a bit steely and bright but yet warm in interpretation. I did a double take when she stole 2 breaths in the long melisma of Rejoice greatly without missing any notes!! How was that possible?

As for the overall performance, I am certainly grateful to be watching such a good performance of the work by a small but yet competent force, despite a number of ‘accidents’. The choice of performance space, again, was wonderful. For me, the general tempi was too slow for some numbers, such as the slow section of the sinfonia (might be ok for larger forces), But who may abide, Let us break their bonds and thou art gone up on high. Nonetheless, thank you, Tian Hui and company, for putting on a most enjoyable performance. More of this please!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sarah Brightman's Eternal Shame

For a quick laugh, here is a pre-Phantom Sarah Brightman 'singing' I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper". Just the sight of her gyrating in a bodysuit is enough to cheer you up!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Lan Shui in Taipei

As a stranger in a foreign land, you'd probably put it down to homesickness when you are contemplating doing something uniquely Singaporean that you wouldn't otherwise do if you had never left home, such as watching Maestro Lan Shui conduct a Mahler symphony without any vocal parts (only this time with the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra (NTSO) in the composer's first symphony Titan). Maestro Lan has been bringing his trademark Mahler speciality to the NTSO recently and will assume the post of artistic consultant in 2011, news that the NTSO announced with much fanfare (well as much fanfare as the classical media can conjure up anyway), though the orchestra that Maestro Lan conducts more often only warranted a passing mention. But until Alexander Souptel, Lynette Seah and company make their way here (hopefully with my beloved SSC as well), I guess this will have to do in the meantime.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Mahler - The People's Edition

Its finally out! Mahler: The People's Edition is another triumph of democracy where music lovers get to vote for their favourite recording of each Mahler symphony, as owned by the two classical music giants of DG and Decca, to be included in this set. The Mad Scene reported the voting process here. Adding to the cool factor, voters who have picked the winning entries are named co-producers on the CD inserts. Click on this link to see which recordings made the cut.

Monday, December 13, 2010

YouTube Symphony 2011

The YouTube Symphony Orchestra makes a return with a concert on March 2011, this time at the Sydney Opera House with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting. The new piece this time is the funky Mothership by American composer Mason Bates, known for combining classical music with underground electronica (he's the DJ in the video). We at The Mad Scene is still in love with Tan Dun's Eroica Internet Symphony from the inaugural concert at Carnegie Hall but is quite taken with this one too. Voting is open now so log on to YouTube and help decide who gets to make it to Sydney!

Now The Mad Scene would love to see a Singaporean contestant make the trip so if you have submitted a video, why not post the URL in the comments or email us at We'll love to help you out!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Opera Siam's Carmen in Rehearsal

Here is some interesting rehearsal footage of Opera Siam's Carmen, as part of their World Opera Week festivities. We get to catch local mezzo Grace Echauri and Stefan Sanchez's Escamillio in action. No sight of Nancy "La Yuen" as Micaela though. You can watch the videos on their FaceBook page here:

Act 1 Rehearsal
Act 2 Rehearsal

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Messiah by the Voices of the East Indies

Its that time of the year when Messiah is on the concert calendar again. But this year's offering promises to be a little different: presented by the newly formed Voices of the East Indies, their Messiah on 22 December features only a 20 member cast and is held at the intimate venue of the Arts House's Chamber. The chorus is made up of  a number of young professional singers led by Ng Tian Hui as conductor and Yap Shing Min (soprano), Phua Ee Kia (countertenor), Melvin Tan (tenor) and William Lim (baritone) as the night's soloists. Sounds like a promising presentation and a group to watch out for. Check out the Events Page for details.

You may also find out more about the group at their website

Saturday, December 4, 2010

High School Opera

I just spent the evening with a bunch of adolescents from Xin Dian High School at the National Concert Hall to watch their school's annual opera production of Cavalleria Rusticana. Yes this high school actually had the resources to stage a full opera, even if its a really short one and in semi-staged concert format. While the cast consisted of professionals contracted locally and from the Mainland, the chorus and orchestra were made up of students and recent alumni. Sets consisted of not more than two chairs and a table. But nevermind the sparseness, the kids gave a spirited and surprisingly clean performance that wouldn't pale much in comparison with the pros (rehearsals apparently started during the holidays in August). If anything the kids were so rushed on performance adrenaline that at many moments they drowned out the poor Santuzza who is not exactly of small resources (but she still rocked nonetheless).

I attended partly as I've not seen a live Cav for some time (first and only time being the SLO's  production many years back with a magnificent can belto Yu Juxing as Turridu and a hyperactive bordering on camp Stella Zhou Ming Lun as Santuzza). I came away inspired at the quality of music making these kids gave, and wonder if the same can ever happen in Singapore.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Tian Hao Jiang to Perform in Singapore!

I'm so excited to present the news that Metropolitan Opera singer Tian Hao Jiang will perform his one-man show From Mao to the Met on 16 and 17 December 2010. Long before Ziyi Zhang (formerly known as Zhang Ziyi) got kickstarted the Yankee's love for all things chinois,  Tian has been singing leading bass roles with the greatest opera stars of the day.  Held at the unsual location of Suntec City's Rock Auditorium, this show promises to be a departure from the formal recital format where Tian will share his life experience from growing up in the deeply communist China to become one of the first Asian opera stars in Western world, as well as play the guitar, accordion and piano. Tickets start at an extremely affordable price of $25. Its a pity that I won't be in town to catch this event, but I wouldn't miss it for the world if I were back home in Singapore! Check out the Events Page for tickets!

UPDATE: The show will be in English with Chinese songs featured in the program.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Mad Scene Supports Our Water Polo Boys

And its not just because they look hot in those trunks. Can the officials please stop representing us as some cave-dwelling Neanderthals to the rest of the world?