Sunday, October 28, 2012

An Interview with Peter Ong

Publicity materials for Dream World's production of Company, opening this coming Thursday 1 November to the 11th, list a cast of well-known theatre personalities including Tan Kheng Hua, Karen Tan, Brendon Fernandez, Petrina Kow, Seong Hui Xuan 'and introducing Peter Ong'.

Those of us who follow the classical vocal music scene in Singapore need no such introduction, since he has frequently appeared in SLO concerts and lieder concerts with the Sing-Song Club. Audiences will get to see a different side of Peter as he gets ready to take on the leading role of Bobby in Stephen Sondheim's classic musical Company, . He has a chat with The Mad Scene to discuss the finer points of the musical and about 'crossing-over'.


The Mad Scene: Firstly, tell us in your own words what the musical is about, and how does your character fit into the picture?

Peter Ong: Company is one of Steven Sondheim's most popular and intricate works. It's about Bobby, a successful 35-year old urbanite, and his struggles with the concept of marriage. "Why should I get married?" "Is marriage really all that great?" these are the constant questions that keep popping up in his psyche and he has a group of friends who help him through this struggle. It's kind of like watching 'Friends' in a musical format, except it deals with very contemporary and sometimes explosive issues on relationships and marriage.

The Mad Scene: it also has three female characters, whom Bobby tries to date?

Peter Ong: yes... Bobby dates three different women and he loves different aspects of them. His ideal of a 'perfect woman' would be a blend of all the women in the show... so it also questions our concepts of 'finding the ideal partner'. Is there such a thing? Is it worth holding out till we find this ideal, or do we settle? I think these are questions many people constantly struggle with nowadays.

The Mad Scene: Singapore has mostly seen you as a singer of lieder and opera excerpts, tell us about your experience in musical theatre prior to landing this gig?

Peter Ong: LOL! Yes, I imagine some may see this as a 'cross-over'...

The Mad Scene: well I often find that opera lovers are into musical theatre as well, although the opposite might not be true

Peter Ong: I have done musical theatre in Malaysia prior to this. Some of the roles I played like he Emcee' in Cabaret, and 'The Scarecrow' in The Wizard of Oz, were very fun characters. Extremely over the top and fantastical. This will be my musical theatre debut in Singapore and I feel extremely blessed and honoured that I was cast.

I love working with Hossan Leong as a director. He is so thorough and motivating, which is very important because Bobby is a very real person. In order to play Bobby, I think I will have to find him in me and bring him out. I hope it will be a very honest interpretation of the role. And Sondheim has written some of his most powerful stuff for Company. The scoring and the lyrics are really works of genius. It's about stripping away the layers and being as honest as I possibly can, and I hope that will come across.

The Mad Scene: So how are rehearsals coming along? I imagine that ensembles like You Can Drive a Person Crazy must be tough to pull off?

Peter Ong: It is a tough show to pull off... it is essentially an ensemble show. But I can honestly say that the cast is amazing! Hossan has really cast it to a T! The chemistry is simply incredible and I do look forward to going into rehearsals everyday. There is much love and cohesion which is fantastic, and everyone is working hard at it.

Opera, as you know, is all about the beautiful voice, the immaculate tone, and the 'OMG' technique. Musical theatre, on the other hand, is theatre. It is about truth, the beautiful and the ugly. In some sense, I am asking a lot from my voice. I cannot divorce the technique from the emotion and 'the moment'. I think that's what makes this musical so powerful.

I have to trust that Bobby's emotional arc will carry the voice through, not the other way round. If I had to sing Don Ottavio and Ferrando, I would have to ensure the voice and the technique carry the emotions through. So I find it extremely challenging and rewarding to take on this role.

The Mad Scene: How’s Hossan Leong as a director? I imagine it must be helpful to have a director who is also an experienced actor?

Peter Ong: Yes, it is. Extremely! I have so much respect for Hossan. I really do not have words to describe it. He is one of the most giving directors I have ever worked with. Clear, specific, and he makes the rehearsal process feel very safe.

He is also extremely musical and such a gifted comic. I am literally learning tons from him at every session. So I am truly, truly grateful to have this chance to learn from him.

The Mad Scene: How does he help you to explore the deeper nuances of your character that you mentioned earlier?

Peter Ong: He gives me lots of food for thought. For instance, I have come to trust the script a lot more. I don't have to ham anything up. I rely on the words and let that do the talking. Sometimes actors like to ham things up. It feels safe. It's a mask. This is not one of those plays. I have had to look very deep and very honestly at myself throughout the rehearsal process to find Bobby and to bring him out. We're still refining it and pushing the character, and I'm really excited to introduce him to everyone come the 1st of November.

The Mad Scene: Its funny that you should say that, as in my opinion no one defines 'ham' or 'camp' better than Hossan Leong, at least where his stage persona is concerned. How much of that wacky stage charisma do you see of him on an offstage, day-to-day basis?

Peter Ong: LOL! there is NONE of that in this show, that's for sure. He has a very real vision for this production, and I hope that I am able to do justice to it. He is a walking ball of energy!!!!! He has an impeccable sense of comic timing; I keel over when he gives notes... it really is such a joy to work with him.

During the first read through, he told us that the key word to this production is 'Love'. I think that's true and it is certainly manifesting itself during rehearsals.

The Mad Scene: What is it about Sondheim’s work that so captures the public’s imagination, especially pertaining to this musical?

Peter Ong: Sondheim studied classical music as an undergraduate and that influence shows up so strongly, which is what draws me to his works. It is simply... riveting! He has stated that the world of classical music is behind some of his deepest influences, including such composers as Sergei Rachmaninoff and Joseph-Maurice Ravel. You can hear it in Sweeney Todd! But more than the dramatic music, it is the lyrics, the words, the biting truth, and the honest wit.

The 3 songs I have to sing as Bobby move me in ways I can't describe, especially having to sing 'Being Alive'. To say it is an emotional roller-coaster ride is putting it very mildly. I hope I will be able to communicate that truth. It hit me in very deep places and I hope the audience will feel that too.

The Mad Scene: In my opinion Sondheim has a style that starts off in a most frenetic manner, and then after all that mayhem comes a truly touchingly human moment.

Peter Ong: you've hit it! it's a human moment.

The Mad Scene: Because when I hear something like You can drive a person crazy, its typical of his zany style, and truly unique in all of classical and musical theatre. But then comes the serious moments…

Peter Ong: absolutely. There is no other composer like him with his musical and lyrical vocabulary.. Sondheim is so rarely performed in Asia. I think this is probably the first production of Company in the region, which is a shame. Sondheim has some really incredible music that more people should be able to listen to. it's ageless.

The Mad Scene: someone once remarked to me that he thinks Sondheim is so much more sophisticated than Andrew Lloyd Webber. I love the latter's music too, but perhaps Sondheim might come across as being too cerebral for the uninitiated, which is why he doesn't get performed much in this region? Do you think this is so?

Peter Ong: I do think he is so much more intelligent as a composer, without a doubt. You just have to look at the scoring to verify it! I think AWL has composed a lot of beautiful melodies but Sondheim has composed truths. Send in the clowns is proof enough. Sondheim has set to music our innermost thoughts, our deepest fears.

The Mad Scene: How different is it working in a musical theatre environment, compared with an opera company or a group of lieder singers?

Peter Ong: It is different in the sense that it is a completely different genre. I have vocal sessions, acting sessions and choreography sessions. In that sense, it is a lot more demanding. I have to merge the three together.

Opera is tough because it is musically and vocally exacting. When i do Mozart operas, I worry about the legato and the 'Mozartian' feel and perfection. When I do lieder, that is more similar to musical theatre. It’s about marrying the text and the music; the vocal colours have to be more intense. You tell a story with your pianist in lieder.

I love opera productions not because of the solos; I love it because of the ensembles; which is why Mozart is my favourite composer and why I love performing his works. his ensembles are just sublime...

The Mad Scene: what is it about Bobby that suits your own personality so well?

Peter Ong: LOL!! I don't know. You'll have to ask Hossan! I think that, to certain degrees, there is a Bobby in every man, so I have to let my 'inner-bobby' come to the surface.

The Mad Scene: What music or videos are currently on your playlist? Care to recommend any to our readers?

Peter Ong: LOL!!!! My playlist has been labeled 'schizophrenic' by some! Mozart is always there. I was just listening to Barbara Bonney's rendition of Laudate Dominum. She is so impeccable. Divine. I was also listening to Bon Jovi, Lady Gaga, Sheila Majid and Sarah Vaughn. Psychotic much?

The Mad Scene: haha... a little, but it’s alright. You're really into Mozart huh? What are your favourite pieces of his?

Peter Ong: what's not to love about Mozart? firstly, you need impeccable technique to do justice to his works. Secondly, a very good sense of ensemble! I find Cosi fan Tutte one of the most beautifully written operas, simply breathtaking. Every piece is a masterpiece! just faultless... I can listen to Soave il vento forever! The way he weaves the voices... no other composer has been able to match it in my opinion.

I also highly recommend Phillppe Jaroussky's rendition of Reynaldo Hahn's L'heure exquise. moves me every time.

The Mad Scene: well just to finish off, tell our readers why we should all go and watch Company?

Peter Ong: because it is Sondheim! It is musical genius! And the cast... you've got some of Singapore's absolute best like Tan Keng-Hua and Karen Tan delivering incredibly amazing performances. You really do not want to miss this. You will laugh and cry because it celebrates all that is human in us.


Meanwhile the girls of Company have been getting busy too, flash-mobbing MRT passengers wearing only their bath towels. Here's what they got up to.

Sounds like a truly exciting show! Find out how to get tickets via the Events Page.

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