Monday, August 20, 2012

Interview with Ee-Ping and Lee Jae-Wook

Singaporean soprano Ee-Ping and Korean tenor Lee Jae-Wook are top opera singers in the region. Both of them have led performances across Europe and Asia to enthusiastic applause and repeated invitations. They will be taking on the lead roles of the doomed lovers in Puccini’s heart-rending opera Manon Lescaut, staged by the Singapore Lyric Opera and performing on 31 August, 1, 3 and 4 September 2012.

I caught up with them after a long day of rehearsals and get their take on taking on this mammoth task. Despite having endured a physically demanding session, both artists were in high spirits and spoke enthusiastically about their upcoming collaboration. Here’s what we discussed:

The Mad Scene: Hi Ee-Ping and Jae-Wook, how are preparations for the production coming along? I understand that you are now in staging?

Jae-Wook: Yes, we are now doing staging rehearsals. We started rehearsals for this opera from 1st August.

The Mad Scene: Tell us about the opera from your character's perspective, who are you playing and what does he or she do in this opera?

Ee-Ping: I play the title role of Manon Lescaut. I start the show as a 15 year-old about to be sent to a convent by her dad. She elopes with the man that she met the day before she was supposed to go to the convent, and because of money and riches she later decides to become the mistress of this old man. From there on it all goes pear-shaped as my character decides to go back to her lover. It all ends very tragically in the middle of an American desert and you will have to come and see what happens to her in the end.

Jae-Wook: I will be playing the role of des Grieux, a poor student and the guy who encourages Manon to elope with him. He is a brave young man who decides to risk his life for pure and true love.

The Mad Scene: We know that Ee-Ping is singing this role for the first time, Jae-Wook is this also your first time singing your role?

Jae-Wook: I already did the role of des Grieux with the DaeGu City Opera in Korea 6 years ago.

The Mad Scene: How do you find the role? Music and character-wise?

Jae-Wook: This role is one of the most difficult roles of opera. It requires expression of rich emotions and strong feelings. The songs of des Grieux include all the feelings of life including sad love, joy, despair, hope and anger, starting out as a fresh young student to someone who is dying in the middle of the desert. Puccini’s melodies are very beautiful but are very difficult to express. I am going to try to express the various and mellow tones of voice that Puccini asked for.

Ee-Ping: My role is challenging to say the least! I have to find so many types of colours, soft and loud… the range is pretty huge, and I have to cover so many aspects of her character that I have to show all kinds the emotions through my voice.

The Mad Scene: How about dramatically? You’ve said just now that she goes through such a change from a young girl to mistress to being banished in the desert, how do you try to get into her state of mind?

Ee-Ping: well he (composer Puccini) has set-up the music so nicely that you just sort of ease into it. It’s difficult to portray so many things in two hours, you have to show such a wide variety of what you can do, but he sets it up so well that it’s all sort of self-explanatory.

The Mad Scene: What’s the reward that you get then for going through such a large emotional journey?

Ee-Ping: to have been able to be true to his music of course and to portray all the different roles and colours and phrases that he requires. If I can achieve even three-quarters of it I will consider myself successful.

The Mad Scene: You've said in our interview for Time Out Singapore that singing Manon Lescaut is as demanding as singing Butterfly. Do you still agree with that now that you are in production? Where are the similarities and differences?

Ee-Ping: Both roles are just as vocally challenging, but character-wise I’ve got so many more roles to fill for Manon. Butterfly remains as herself more or less; she may have matured a few years in Act 2 but she’s more or less the same person. Manon on the other hand goes through such a huge path from being a shy young girl to being a mistress and a seductress, therefore I inhibit so many more different roles with her than with Butterfly.

Ee-Ping in the SLO’s Don Giovanni 
The Mad Scene: Tell us about the chemistry that you share with each other. Do you find each other a good stage boyfriend or girlfriend?

Ee-Ping: of course! I already knew Jae-Wook from about two years ago…

Jae-Wook: no, last year…

Ee-Ping: no, more than that! We performed in concerts then, but I’m still getting used to him… we’re getting used to each other’s style.

The Mad Scene: yeah but that was in concert, now the two of you are playing lovers and you’re kind of hugging each other all-day-long during rehearsals, what is it like working with him?

Ee-Ping: well the touchy-feely part is getting easier (laughs)… because we are getting used to each other.

The Mad Scene: how about musically: Do the voices blend well?

Jae-Wook: we are working on that now, because these things take time. Although this is the first time Ee-Ping and I are working together in an opera, we have performed many concerts together and so are very attuned to each other. I feel that she is a good partner to me and she will be a good lover to des Grieux.

The Mad Scene: If you weren't singing in the SLO production, is Manon Lescaut an opera that you would enjoy watching in the audience?

Ee-Ping: of course! I haven’t seen any live performances though, I’ve seen lots of references online and on DVDs and CDs, but couldn’t catch a live show.

Jae-Wook: This opera is very beautiful one, but unfortunately it is not frequently performed. Singaporeans are very lucky to have a chance to see this opera live. If I can get a chance to watch this, I will gladly enjoy it. The duets by Manon and des Grieux are very beautiful. Even though the aria Donna non vidi mai is the most famous among the 4 arias of des Grieux, the other 3 arias are also beautiful and touching.

The Mad Scene: So who have you heard in this opera, on DVD or CD, that has especially touched you?

Jae-Wook: I like the CD recorded by Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras. I like the harmony between Te Kanawa’s graceful melody of colors and Carreras’s emotional tone colours. Carreras’s emotional expressions are especially touching to me.

Ee-Ping: I like the Renata Scotto one... at La Scala? No it was at the Met… with James Levine. I thought the Karita Mattila one was just ok…

The Mad Scene: It is actually the same production…

Ee-Ping: oh but it doesn’t feel the same… the feeling is different. I’ve also seen the one by Maria Guleghina and Jose Cura. Not sure about that one… It was not very convincing till the end, and that was a bit late.

The Mad Scene: What do you like about the Scotto one then?

Ee-Ping: she has all the right feelings, all the right touches. The rubato, portamento are all in the right place. Obviously she understands every word of what she is singing. While I do try to understand the text, it may be less in the guts for me than for her. It helps to watch her performance because its second skin for her.

The Mad Scene: The story of the opera is written by a religious figure in the 18th century (by the Abbé Prévost), and was shocking in its time for its graphic description of sex and high society decadence. How do you think it still relates to modern audiences? What lessons can we still learn from it?

Jae-Wook: Although it was written as a satire of the social reality in the 18th century, this story is not irrelevant to the present day. The conflicts between rich and poor, sexual discrimination of women in society, women’s instinctive desire for the high life and the desire for pure love…. all these can be found in this opera and are also very much a part of modern society. Every one of us who watch this opera will learn a different lesson.

Ee-Ping: Money is still very relevant isn’t it, what riches can buy you… power, sex, betrayal, all sorts of things. It’s exactly the same now as it was back then. Money can buy you lots of stuff and it can make you do all kinds of crazy, horrible things.

The Mad Scene: The SLO is working with a female director for the first time, E. Loren Meeker from the US. How is it like working with her?

Ee-Ping: Loren is a very detailed director, she knows exactly what she wants, but she also asks us what we’d like, or if there’s anything she wants that we are not comfortable with. She lets us have an input and a choice. Very open, very direct.

The Mad Scene: Does she bring a unique female perspective to the opera?

Ee-Ping: Well Loren was a dancer so she has that added physical way of communicating. If she is a man she may not be able to ask me to pose in a certain way but as an ex-dancer she can demonstrate more efficiently. Maybe she can tap into the feminine side a bit easier as opposed to a male director.

Jae-Wook: I worked with several female directors in Korea. A common characteristic of female directors is to ask for delicate expression of emotions, such as gazing, the direction of the gaze and the accompanying gestures. They help me very much when I try to express the delicate emotions in Puccini’s long, arching melodies.

The Mad Scene: Ee-Ping, do you agree with Jae-Wook’s description that female directors can be very detailed in terms of facial expressions?

Ee-Ping: yes, but he is already perfect (at rehearsals); it’s ME that needs help!

Jae-Wook: well it’s my second time singing this role, whereas for Ee-Ping it’s her first…

Ee-Ping: I’m full of faults and problems!

The Mad Scene: Can you give us an example, what’s a problem that came up recently?

Ee-Ping: don’t slouch! I have to be a refined lady!

In Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites with the Korea National Opera
The Mad Scene: What kind of production can we expect? Traditional, modern, experimental etc?

Jae-Wook: This production is modern in style with experimental touches.

Ee-Ping: Modern, and minimalistic, bare.

The Mad Scene: In what way is it experimental? Anything like the dancing bumblebees that we see on YouTube? How far off the scale are we talking about?

Ee-Ping: It’s a production with a modern twist I suppose, looking through another pair of glasses to see a different perspective. We’ve got a rake so there’s a lot of up-and-down movement. There’s a mirror as a backdrop, so often I face my back to the audience but they can still see me through the mirror.

The Mad Scene: how about character-wise? Any updates like perhaps a feministic view?

Ee-Ping: no, character-wise it’s still the same, we stay true to the original emotions.

The Mad Scene: Jae-Wook, you’ve sang in Singapore so many times now, is there anything that you especially like about singing here?

Jae-Wook: this is already my 11th time here! I’ve sang some concerts with the SLO, SCO and with the Chinese societies, and I’ve performed four operas with the SLO. I like to sing here because everybody is very kind to me.

The Mad Scene: Cool! So last question: tell us why we should all come and watch the SLO's Manon Lescaut?

Jae-Wook: This is Puccini’s third opera. His reputation as a great opera composer was sealed after the success of Manon Lescaut. What is interesting about third operas is that that Verdi also won fame with his third opera Nabucco, and Wagner was beginning to become popular after the success of his third work Rienzi. You can see for yourself why this opera was the Puccini’s first successful work and what was the appeal that led to his further success.

Ee-Ping: There’s lots of action in this opera. The music is fabulous, the singing is fabulous, and so you should come see it. Come support the arts!

The Singapore Lyric Opera’s production of Manon Lescaut plays on 31 August, 1, 3 and 4 September 2012. Get your tickets now at SISTIC.

Read also:
Interview with other Manon Lescaut cast members William Lim, Melvin Tan and Martin Ng.

Exclusive feature of Ee-Ping on Time Out Singapore

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