Wednesday, July 2, 2014

An Interview with Martin Ng

Congratulations to our very own Martin Ng for scoring a part in Taiwan's National Symphony production of Salome! He is now preparing for the role of the first soldier. As you may recall, Martin sang the roles of First Nazareth and Cappadocian in our very own SLO production in 2011, so it looks like he's moving through the ranks in this opera.

Its going to be a world tour of sorts, as his next engagement is taking place in Singapore just a few weeks after his Taiwanese gig, a full recital of virtuoso arias by Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini entitled Martin Ng's Bel Canto Spectacular. It is the debut production of this very e-zine, something we hope will enrich the arts here, so we hope for your support on 8 August 2014 at the Esplanade Recital Studio. Beatrice Lin will accompany and soprano Tan Sin-Sim is our special guest singer. More information including the full programme can be found here:

So coming back to our interview, Martin and I had a great chat, going back to what got him interested in opera singing back then, what he is singing these days and of course, what we can look forward to come 8 August 2014. Parts of this interview have been used in an upcoming Time Out Singapore feature (available at bookshops and convenience stores on 1 August), here are the rest of it:

The Mad Scene: Take us back to the beginning, how did you get into operatic singing back then?

Martin: I learnt piano and organ at a very young age, so I was always very musically inclined. I've never really been listening to vocal music till my late teens: it was a performance of La Boheme by SLO and I was mesmerised by the beautiful music. I realised that I really really want to learn how to sing like that.

The Mad Scene: Why voice lessons?

Martin: My mother was taking voice lessons from a teacher, and she said why don't I take voice lessons from her as well? I said why not? So I started taking voice lessons from her for many years. She included me in her student concerts. One day I auditioned for SLO, they gave me the part of Yamadori in a production of Madama Butterfly, and that was it!

The Mad Scene: How old were you back then?

Martin: I think I was 21.

The Mad Scene: Was winning the SLO competition a deciding factor?

Martin: Yes I suppose it was, on one hand people from SLO knew who I was, so it helped me get my first engagement with SLO.

Reprising his role as Yamadori in the 2013 SLO production of Madama Butterfly
The Mad Scene: What made you decide to leave your law career and pursue an operatic career? What was the breaking point?

Martin: Its something you cannot decide, because more and more people ask you to sing for their performances and they pay you, so it became a career in that way. You study and study and at a certain point of time you audition, and if you audition well people will hire you and you start singing!

The Mad Scene: Was there something that you were unhappy with?

Martin: No, I wasn't unhappy per se, I'm the kind of person who can be happy in any kind of situation because I will always find the positive aspects of a situation and learn to be content. Its just that there was an opportunity for me to be... even happier. I wasn't unhappy, I just thought that there's this thing that I really liked to do, this thing that I wanted to pursue further and see where it will take me.

The Mad Scene: Coming to your current life in Italy, you are often the only Singaporean, sometimes the only Asian in your European opera performances. How does that make you feel?

Martin: I don't really think about it much actually, I just put my heart into doing my best. I'm not sure if they judge me differently because I'm of a different race or culture, but I haven't felt any particular prejudices. I just do my best to fit in and make friends. Some are friendlier than others, some not so much, so you just...

The Mad Scene: Do you feel then that you have to put in extra effort to fit in socially and to prove your worth?

Martin: Not really. As long as you do your job and sing well, you will be respected. Opera is so international these days, you find many non-natives singing in Italy, Germany and France. So its not really very different. In these productions I might be the only Singaporean, but I certainly wasn't the only non-Italian. I've worked with Koreans, Romanians and so on. There are so many Japanese and Chinese in Europe that you'll find more than one Asian in many productions.

As Timur with Nancy Yuen in SLO's 2008 Turandot
The Mad Scene: Let's take about the upcoming recital. Why present a programme of bass bel canto arias in Singapore?

Martin: Because in Singapore nobody listens to this repertoire! We get to hear Puccini and Verdi often, everybody knows Carmen, Boheme, Butterfly and so on. How often do we get to hear I Puritani, Rossini apart from Barber, and Vivaldi... how many people know that he composed over 50 operas? Maybe Handel yes. There's not much representation of Handel's non-English oratorios. How many people will sing Vivaldi's operas, Rossini's serious operas? Puritani and Donizetti's serious stuff? These are staple stuff that's going on in Italy, but they are not represented in Singapore at all!

The Mad Scene: Why do Singaporeans have to to listen to these arias?

Martin: Because they are very beautiful music and also very difficult to pull off. Most of the Vivaldi and Handel are virtuosic, but I'm also doing some Bellini and Donizetti which are more cantabile but also has a bit of fioritura. And also I'm singing basso buffo arias, such as Bartolo's aria which I sung in a production recently, an amazing patter song. Its not coloratura but its patter, buffo repertoire, which nobody really sings in Singapore. How many people will sing these things that are so far off the standard repertoire?

As Bartolo in 2014
The Mad Scene: Also you have performed these arias many times, so its a greatest hits?

Martin: Not really, because when you plan a programme you have to plan variety, different moods, also what it will sound like as a package, how it will sound like to the audience. Its about 60% greatest hits, the rest are new risks that I will take on for the first time.

The Mad Scene: Is this your first time performing with Tan Sin-Sim?

Martin: Yes it is. I have never heard her perform but I have heard a lot of good things about her. I'm looking forward to the programme. We have programmed duets from Il Turco in Italia and L'elisir d'amore and I think she has the voice for it.

The Mad Scene: How has being a Singaporean helped you achieve the international performance career that you have today?

Martin: Being kiasu, our competitive spirit. Because we don't want to end up being mediocre in anything. Besides I've already made such a big sacrifice. That we can learn languages quickly. Also being able to speak Chinese helps now that I'm singing in Taiwan. I see some of my Taiwanese classmates who can understand English but sometimes they are unable to express themselves to the director but I have no problems. It doesn't really make careers but its a great soft skill to have.

The Mad Scene: What are your plans for the future?

Martin: I will be singing Schoenberg's Guerrelieder in Taiwan on New Year's Eve, its their New Year's Eve gala concert! How festive is that! Also concerts in Venice in October, apart from that is one audition after another. Sing sing sing and sing!

The Mad Scene: Lastly, what do you say to folks who do not think that basses and baritones can sing coloratura as well as sopranos?

Martin: While sopranos tend to perform coloratura arias more often, Rossini writes florid passages for every voice type that are just as difficult. Great composers like him, Handel and Vivaldi have invested their best pieces for basses and baritones, so they will certainly disagree with this assessment. Coloratura may not feature much in bass repertoire these days, that's why you'll have to come and hear how its done!

Once again, Martin Ng's Bel Canto Spectacular will be held on 8 August 2014 at the Esplanade Recital Studio. Tickets and programme available at See you there!

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