Sunday, August 19, 2012

“Fences” in Review – 19 Aug 2012

John Sharpley’s and Robert Yeo’s original opera was definitely an interesting artistic experience for me. Set in the tumultuous times of the 1960s, the pair of lovers from Singapore and Malaysia had to build their relationship around political and social turmoil, with racial tensions building up on both sides of the causeway. 

The music is an interesting mix, loosely described by this writer as jagged, seemingly atonal melodies supported by traditional tonal harmonies, augmented by Chinese and gamelan influences. These were played out in the orchestra by two yangqin’s, an erhu and bamboo flute for the former and mirambas for the latter, as well as written into the vocal lines of the singers to reflect certain traditional values. A scene set in a jazz bar had the orchestra playing appropriate musical styles too. To the composer’s and performer’s credit, these disparate influences fit organically into the whole musical scheme and rarely seemed contrived.

With vocal lines, one spots many loose references to the style of Puccini and the four bel canto composers, where soaring melodies (however fragmented) build-up lyrically to stunning climaxes. While the cast remarked many times during the media call about the difficulty of the score, the music was so worked into their collective system by the time curtains opened that apparent signs of strain or discomfort was minimal, not any more than the a Puccini or Verdi opera production.

Despite the best efforts of Handel, Britten and other composers who have composed English operas, the language and bel canto singing style was still a strange mix to these ears, especially when paired with Sharpley’s unusual musical language. But things got better after the ears have adjusted.

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Theatrically the story moved at a good pace. Two screens on both sides of the stage provided the physical and metaphorical backdrop. Two platforms placed in front of these screens represented the protagonists’ respective family homes on both sides of the causeway. Numerous colourfully painted wooden boxes were randomly laid out centrestage and improvised as props at different parts of the show, as well as providing a colourful backdrop throughout the evening. Two separate choirs played Malaysian Malays and Singaporean Chinese, nourishing their discontent at recent turns of political events in dramatically-charged choral scenes (LKY even makes an appearance in one such scene).

I am often wary of new operas that try to cram too many details into their plots and skimp on emotional development, but I think the composer and librettist struck a good balance here (If you’ve noticed the plots of most classic operas usually occurs over a day or two, all the better to go in-depth and manipulate tears from the audience). In short, the story speeds up and slows down at just the right pace to keep interest high throughout the evening.

Playing Malay girl Nora, Akiko Otao looked a few shades tanner than when we met for our interview. One wonders how much of the budget was set aside for spray-tanning cast members. The voice is a lyric instrument, soft-grained, well-placed, sweet and evenly produced. Playing the Chinese boyfriend Steven, David Quah showed off a full bodied Italianate lyric tenor voice that is as beautiful as it is expressive.

Microphones were used, stage mikes for the chorus and body mikes for the soloists (visibly taped to their faces), though from where I was sitting (on the most left seat) they were so subtly used that I can still make out the source of the voices with my eyes closed.

While the opera was set in English, I still wished that surtitles were used, as I could barely make out half the lyrics that were being sung; thus I was unable to truly feel the many moments of dramatic tension. The racial riots that ended the first half was one such example when most of the audience could not even tell that we were watching the climatic Act 1 Finale. Neither could I make out what was discussed in the ending duet. Synopsis and the full libretto were provided, though with the theatre in darkness one would hardly be in the mood to flip the script open to read what was being sung (having said that I still require subtitles when listening to Handel, Gilbert and Sullivan et all, so maybe it’s just that the language does not fit well with opera singing, or maybe it’s just me).

This is certainly a theatrical event worth checking out. As a classical music lover and Singaporean one is wont to spend more time exploring the music of dead white Europeans much more than exploring and developing his own culture. Fences a good chance to do so, to see how the operatic art form can fit into a Singaporean context. It is every bit a Singaporean (and Malaysian) story, told with honesty (the show received an M16 rating for openly discussing racial issues) and high artistic quality. Production values as mentioned above can be improved, but one should not let such shortcomings distract from what is a well-produced piece of theatre. One would welcome a revival and perhaps a chance to hear the set-pieces, arias and duets, in concert or in recordings.

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