Sunday, July 22, 2012

Interview with SLO Stars William Lim, Melvin Tan and Martin Ng

Manon Lescaut Cast Interview with William Lim, Melvin Tan and Martin Ng
By Steven Ang
18 July 2012

The Singapore Lyric Opera will present Giacomo Puccini’s 1893 opera Manon Lescaut on 31 August, 1, 3 and 4 September 2012 at the Esplanade Theatre. The opera was premiered in the Teatro Regio in Turin and marked his first foray in the professional arena. Puccini’s publisher Ricordi was initially against this project as he feared comparisons with Massenet’s setting of the same literary source, Abbé Prévost’s tale of materialism and loose morality. However Puccini stood his ground, “Manon is a heroine I believe in and therefore she cannot fail to win the hearts of the public. Why shouldn’t there be two operas about Manon? A woman like Manon can have more than one lover. Massenet feels it as a Frenchman, with powder and minuets. I shall feel it as an Italian, with a desperate passion.”

As he had predicted, the opera was a great success and opened the path for the composer to achieve greater heights with his next efforts: La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. I speak to three Singaporean singers and cast members William Lim, Melvin Tan and Martin Ng to get their take on this classic musical tale, and what we can expect when curtains open from 31 August to 4 September.

Postcard promoting the premiere production
Steven: Hi William, Melvin and Martin, thank you for doing this interview with me. Firstly, please introduce yourselves to our listeners and tell us what role you will be playing?

William: I’m playing Geronte, the guy who actually gives Manon the luxuries and whatever she wants. He’s the national treasurer whom Manon sacrifices her love for in return for his wealth, but later on he tries to send her to her death when he finds out that she’s still seeing her first lover.

Martin: I will be playing the role of the Inn Keeper and the Naval Commander.

Melvin: and I will be playing Edmondo, a student and friend of male lead Des Grieux. My character helps scheme for Manon to elope with Dex Grieux.

Steven: Without giving away the ending, tell us the story of Manon Lescaut, and what audiences can look forward to when the SLO production opens.on 31 August?

Martin: They can look forward to passionate Puccinian music, including the famous Manon Lescaut intermezzo and famous arias like Donna non vidi mai, In quelle trine morbide and Sola perduta, abbandonata.

William: Manon is basically a young girl who was sent by her family to a convent. I think she’s no more than 16…she’s accompanied by her brother (Lescaut, to be played by Andrew Fernando in this production). On this trip they stop by an inn for an overnight stay before they continue their journey. It is here that she catches the eye of one Des Grieux, a student having a drink at the pub, and also this old man Geronte, who’s the national treasurer and therefore very rich and well-connected with the authorities...

Steven: that’s your role…

William: Yes. He also desires for her, that’s why later on he got very friendly with her brother, so as to find out more about her family.

Melvin: Well that’s actually just Act 1, My character is the first person in the opera to sing, just showcasing how playful everyone is by making-up madrigals on the spot with the rest of the students, creating a jovial atmosphere before the carriage arrives, and then we go on to meet Manon. The famous tenor aria Donna non vidi mai is in this act as well, where he sings his love for the girl he just met. Act 2 is where they’ve eloped.

William: something must have happened in between that suggested that they have lived together between Acts 1 and 2 of Puccini’s opera, because in act 2 it opens up in Geronte’s palace, where you have all this dancing and merry-making happening, so between the acts of this opera they must have lived together somewhere.

Melvin: and in Act 2 (of the Puccini) she’s already with your character, Geronte.

William: that’s right.

William Lim
Steven: While Manon Lescaut is well-known in its own right, it’s not as popular as Puccini’s other operas such La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, Tosca and Turandot, despite having the same Puccinian formula such as a strong but sympathetic female lead, heart-rending music and so on. Why do you think this is so?

Martin: Well for me Manon Lescaut forms part of standard repertory as much as La Bohème, Tosca or Butterfly.

Melvin: I’ve had the privilege of singing a big chunk of the music of the lead role for Opera in the Park, and also having the perspective of singing the secondary tenor role for this production. It’s given me some interesting insights because I think that when I first looked at Manon Lescaut…. like you said it’s not the first thing that pops into mind when one thinks of Puccini, but this really was his first step into greatness as a composer. Because when I really looked and studied the duet and sang it with Cherylene (Liew) at Opera in the Park, all the harmony and all his creative use of chromaticisms and the great singing lines… they pretty much point to the beginning of the genius. So it’s great that people will get to see that this was the precursor to all the great operas that you mentioned.

William: I think this is also the beginning of the formula of Puccini. As you’ve said, when people go to see a Puccini opera they’ll expect an act 1 aria for tenor, act 2 aria for soprano and so on… I think when people come in to see Manon Lescaut, they will be able to find all this in his first success as a composer.

Melvin: (to William) what was the opera before this? Edgar?

William: Yes, coming after Le Villi.

Steven: I think those two operas were composed while he was still a conservatory student, so Manon Lescaut was his first professional commission, when he was starting to come into his own as a composer.

Melvin: yes, when he finally found his voice as the most popular composer of his generation.

William: this is the Puccini that we finally recognize as the composer of Tosca, Butterfly etc.

Melvin Tan
Steven: Melvin, apart from managing your singing career you are also running a wine bar; I’m going to give you an opportunity to plug it here. Where is it and what’s so special about it?

Melvin: Well I’ve done interviews for my wine bar before and people always point to this supposedly interesting juxtaposition between wine and music. But for me its natural because when I work on my wine bar, Verre Wine Bar at Robertson Quay, it’s like a performance for me as well because I’m wine-trained, not as a full sommelier but I’m getting there, so for me putting on my apron and holding my wine opener is kind of like preparing for a performance, like putting on my costume and going out to meet the guests. Not to say that I’m playing a role or am forced to do something, but in some ways it’s like presenting something to an audience as well…

Steven: Is it tough juggling a professional singing career and running this wine business?

Melvin: initially when we were first starting out I was very lucky because it was around the time we were doing Salome and I had quite a small role, so it allowed me time to be at the bar a lot. Now that it’s almost a year, the bar is sort of running almost by itself and I’m there mostly on the important days, so its actually given me the ability to continue my singing career.

Steven: William, besides performing you’re also teaching singing in two schools: SRMC (Singapore Raffles Music College) and SOTA; how does teaching inform your performances?

William: I think when you perform, you gain your experiences and knowledge, and you pass them on to your students through teaching. Then again when you teach you learn from them as well so you give that back in your performances.

Steven: What differences are there between teaching in a school situation and teaching privately?

William: I think when you teach in school there are syllabuses that you have to follow; if you teach privately it’s a bit more free, but you have to cater to what the students want. You can’t very well force them into doing what you think is right, because they probably won’t enjoy it.

Steven: are the differences big?

William: not really. Basically you teach them the same technique, the only differences are in repertoire. People may come to you and ask “can you help me sing better in church choir” or things like that, but in a music college they would not want to focus on that, that’s all.

Steven: Personally I can’t wait to hear Ee-Ping take on the title role. Having worked with her so many times, what do you think her interpretation will be like?

Melvin: I first saw her when she sang Micaela with the SLO in the nineties (in Georges Bizet’s Carmen), and it was one of my first experiences with a true lyric soprano onstage, live. Even as a schoolboy I was already thoroughly impressed. It is my great fortune to have worked with her in two productions this year, including SLO’s Don Giovanni. She is so technically secure; the voice is never not floated, it’s never strained, and with that kind of pedigree, that kind of instrument and technique, she would sail through this role. I think it’s interesting because for her it’s probably the biggest role she’s sung in Singapore. Given her wealth of experience singing in Singapore, UK and Continental Europe, it’s a good challenge for her to take on, especially on her home turf.It’s an exciting time, and she’s at a great age for her to sing this role too!

Steven: how about the dramatic requirements? Do you think she has what it takes to give us all the required passion and anguish?

Melvin: she has that thing in her voice, that sob in the voice that we always talk about in Italian voices. For all we know it may not be fully matured for singing the more spinto roles yet, but there’s this ache that she has that comes quite naturally, and I think these kind of tragic heroine roles do suit her quite well. I only get one line with her! Can you imagine? Just one line throughout the entire opera! So I’m going to SAVOUR every moment of that line!

Steven: And then you can watch the rest of the show backstage!

Melvin: yes, then take my bow and go home!

Steven: I’ve only seen her in Mozart roles actually, such as The Magic Flute where she was the First Lady, so I’ve never gotten to see her in a context that requires that kind of sob and passionate outpouring that Manon Lescaut requires.

William: you know I’ve worked with her a couple of times, so I think it’ll be interesting to see her as Manon Lescaut. I think its a role that she is definitely capable of.

Melvin: she has it in spades actually, the ability to emote and get to the emotional heart, and you do feel for her as a character. Even in the other performance that I was working with her on (an Arts Festival presentation) which was really quite static, through her expression of words and all that she still managed to bring her character across. I really have a lot of respect for her. Plus she’s a great colleague to work with as well, always a bag of fun. You need people like that around you in a stressful production situation and she’s always very positive… good colleague to be around with.

Steven: Heard any CDs/DVDs of Manon Lescaut? Care to recommend any?

Melvin: I’m watching the Domingo and Kiri te Kanawa version right now which I like a lot, the one at Covent Garden. Quite traditional and Kiri at one of her best moments.

Steven: But we don’t usually associate Kiri with Puccini…

Melvin: … not really, yes; it’s almost as if Renee would do it one day right!? Of course they are quite different but for me they seem to be in the same Mozartian/Straussian mode…

Steven: they do well in other repertoire…

Melvin: Yes. Another one I saw a bit of is the Karita Matilla one at the Met. I’m not sure if she’s right for the role too, maybe I’ve been listening to all the wrong singers!

William: I saw another DVD of Domingo with Renata Scotto at the Met in the 80’s, I think it was really wonderful! As for CDs, I’ve heard a few; my favourite version would be the one with Licia Albanese, a very old RCA recording from the 1950’s, where she was singing with Bjorling.

Martin: For me, definitely Maria Callas’s version is the best!

Martin Ng (Centre)
Steven: Lastly, tell us why we should all attend the SLO’s production of Manon Lescaut?

William: I think with the tradition of the SLO, they have always presented wonderful performances. And if you have attended Butterfly, Tosca, La Boheme, you should not miss the first great Puccini heroine, which is Manon Lescaut.

Martin: not forgetting the melodious arias and duets!

Melvin: As William has said the SLO has always been known to push the envelope these days; we aren’t content anymore with just doing standard repertoire; we keep pushing the artistic envelope and this is again yet another Singapore premiere. For the first time we’ve got a female director (E. Loren Meeker), quite a young and up-and-coming director specializing in opera including assisting in big houses like Chicago and Santa Fe, so it’ll be quite interesting to see all these elements come together. It’s always exciting with the SLO because it’s always a new production!

The Singapore Lyric Opera’s production of Manon Lescaut runs on 31 August, 1, 3 and 4 September 2012. Tickets are now available at SISTIC.

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