Saturday, March 15, 2014

An Interview with Jeremy Koh

I first became familiar with Jeremy Koh at New Opera Singapore's inaugural production of L'elisir d'amore in the baritone role of Belcore. Soon to graduate this year from NAFA's vocal music degree programme, he will take on the tenor role of Bastien in Mozart's childhood opera Bastien und Bastienne on 26 and 27 March 2014. We discussed the previous New Opera production, switching voice types, his mentors and the upcoming Mozart production.

The Mad Scene: Congratulations on landing the lead role of Bastien und Bastienne. How's rehearsals coming along?

Jeremy: Thank you! Rehearsals are intense! Not because of the long hours, but the amount of thinking and character study that our director, Andy Pang, puts us through. He makes sure there's a reason to everything that's said and done. I really admire his work.

The Mad Scene: Did having to sing in a foreign language call more more of this character work?

Jeremy: Hmm... not really. translations is a must like always, It's more about figuring out what's happened before the opera. That way, the things that happen in the opera fit together as a believeable story.

The Mad Scene: So tell us in your own words what's the plot and music like? I think most of us would not be familiar with this opera that Mozart wrote at 12?

Jeremy: The plot is something like the drama you see on TV... at least for me haha
In this production, Colas comes in between the relationship of childhood lovers Bastien and Bastienne. The boy's left for the big city to seek success so that he can become more worthy of his partner, who's from a slightly more affluent family in the village.

Colas swoops in and sows discord by telling both individuals separate stories and friction arises when the two young lovers meet. They eventually reach breaking point after being wary and suspicious of the other and the truth pops out!

The Mad Scene: ah. Any references to nymphs and shepherds, or is this a modern take?

Jeremy: Oh yes, this will be set in the Classical take, so yes, costumes will be part of the fun. In this production, Bastienne's family owns animals, so that's why Bastien goes 'away' (as stated in the opera).

The Mad Scene: Cool! I think that many of us first saw you perform as Belcore in L'elisir d'amore in New Opera Singapore's first production. What was that experience like?

Jeremy: Belcore! That's quite a while back... haha. It was a good experience because I got to sing in new venues like the Lasalle-SIA theatre and SOTA's orchestra rehearsal studio (during rehearsals). They even organised a flash mob at a shopping centre! Haha I'm generally shy when I'm in public so that was one memory that will stay.

The Lasalle-SIA theatre's acoustics reminded me of a black box, very merciless for me. But hey, from that experience, I feel that I can manage singing in an open field just as well as in the showers! My neighbours would probably know best... I've had people shouting for me to shut up from downstairs before... lol...

The Mad Scene: So do my neighbours, and family too! It seems to be a rite of passage for us singers.

Jeremy: HAHA singers know best!

The Mad Scene: Was that your first full opera role?

Jeremy: Hmmm, it's not actually. I played the role of David in a NAFA production of Samuel Barber's opera A Hand of Bridge... but that's a mini opera that's 10 minutes. Does that count...? I did it twice though... it's still short isn't it haha

The Mad Scene: I think that counts, even if the music is of a very different nature. And the performances? Were you happy with them?

Jeremy: For the Barber opera? Yes, but I liked the second time more actually, it wasn't easy to learn and I thought I did more justice in that second attempt. The whole thing was set during a game of bridge, so yeah... we could have written our libretto on those cards. But of course we didn't!

The Mad Scene: Well I meant the New Opera production, but that's good too. So any other thoughts for the L'elisir performances?

Jeremy: Looking back, I felt that I could have done better. I've yet to think back of a performance that I am contented with. I really enjoyed meeting and working with other singers!

The Mad Scene: You were scheduled to do only one but got to do two. What was that experience like?

Jeremy: Ahh it was so unexpected. I usually rehearse with the cast of the first day so everything was second nature already. So on the second day we had a short 15 minutes of 'I will do this here at this time' and 'I will do this there at that time'. Exciting!

The Mad Scene: How's the switch to tenor coming along? Is it difficult seeing that you have done so much as a baritone?

Jeremy: It is coming along well but not without struggles I must admit. I am often reminded of how I often felt in my first year of vocal study. I really admire my voice teacher, Dr Jessica Chen, for enduring my... attempts... while staying calm and composed. I don't believe I could have done the same really. On a serious note, I'm really grateful for her patience and dedication!

Lucky for me, I have very honest people around me who tell me 'yay' or 'nay' upfront. It's good to have friends who help one another, like how one sabotaged me into singing during a masterclass that I wasn't even involved in!

The Mad Scene: Tell more? Who's the teacher?

Jeremy: It was a masterclass by counter-tenor Tay Cheng-Jim, and at the end of the masterclass he asked what repertoire everyone's doing. He picked a tenor in year one for that question, and suggested Dalla sua pace. Well, heads turn and there were murmuring and then someone went 'oh Jeremy's song' or something. And I was asked up to do it... without warm up or anything... but I survived, sort of.... haha

The Mad Scene: gosh that sounds like it could potentially cause a heart attack! Coming back, if anyone knows a thing or two about switching voice types it would be Jessica. Any advice that came from her own experiences that you could share?

Jeremy: Hmmm, if I remember correctly, the story was part of her interview with The Mad Scene! The one to do with the role of Turandot. She's amazing. I was part of her story you know! I was in the chorus when she did Turandot with SLO in 2008... She's amazing!

The Mad Scene: haha, I remembered a huge argument in the comments section of that review, oops.

Jeremy: no, it's discussion la!

The Mad Scene: yeah I thought Jessica was great in it. People argued that her voice wasn't big enough, but I found it a very musical and well-thoughout performance. I guess folks weren't used to seeing The Mad Scene back then, and I wasn't so sure about what I was doing either. Hope things are better now. Did she give any advice that helped your own switching of voice categories?

Jeremy: Yes, she did, every week in fact! One thing that was really hard for me, was to not only sing, but hear from her perspective. It's quite hard to describe it!

The Mad Scene: ok, so a lot of technical advice then.

Jeremy: yeah, more like an overhaul! It's only a year, I'm looking forward to the future!

The Mad Scene: It sounds like cramming of a lot of technical work in a very short time. Speaking of teachers, you will also have William Lim performing as the baddie Colas in addition to Su Yiwen and Yin Yue alternating as Bastienne. What's it like rehearsing with a seasoned pro like him?

Jeremy: He's a fantastic person. I was initially nervous but after working briefly with him, it's hard not to feel at ease. He's very sincere person. I really enjoy watching him whenever he discusses about the role and music.

The Mad Scene: Did you learn anything from working with him? Care to share?

Jeremy: There's so much! I particularly like how he enunciates his German text, but it's how he manages to sing the same text differently that sets a deep impression for me.

The Mad Scene: In what way? What is the effect when he does that?

Jeremy: Let's just say you've to watch the opera to find out! It's when he's singing with Bastienne, that's my only hint. That's where the magic happens.

The Mad Scene: Who are your favourite singers, operatic or otherwise?

Jeremy: Well, I like Juan Diego Florez, Fritz Wunderlich, Chris Merritt for the tenors, Bryn Terfel and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, 1989 battle of the baritones for the win! Marilyn Horne and Joan Sutherland for the ladies. I would like to add my late Mr Lim Shieh Yih to the list too, I always end up listening to his recordings some way or another.

The Mad Scene: Yes those of us who have gotten to hear him sing would definitely miss that lovely voice. Are there any other shows that are you looking forward to attend?

Jeremy: Mmm... actually I haven't really thought of that. I have my graduation recital in couple months time and my mind's all stuck on that. I would love to travel to UK to watch the Wigmore hall recitals again though. I wanted to watch Leo Nucci's recital but it was not meant to be as I had to be back in Singapore.

The Mad Scene: Oh I see. You went to London for a while as part of the NAFA course right? How was that experience?

Jeremy: Yes!! I really enjoyed my time at the royal college of music. The library is paradise on earth! The library sale is even better! I'm getting excited just thinking back at all the old forgotten scores I had my hands on. I studied with tenor Justin Lavender and baritone Stephen Roberts while I was there.

The Mad Scene: Seen any operas there?

Jeremy: I watched Die Fledermaus at the English National Opera (ENO) and L'incoronazione di Poppea by the English Touring opera (ETO), I did catch quite a number of recitals though.

The Mad Scene: ok cool. That concludes our interview then. Thanks Jeremy, have a great show!

Jeremy: Thank you Steven! Do come and watch it!

The Mad Scene: yeah, I'm looking forward to it!

Bastien und Bastienne runs on 26 and 27 May 2014. Admission is free.

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