Friday, March 25, 2016

Interview Feature: Reuben Lai and Akiko Otao from L'Arietta - 2 April 2016

It was a pleasure having a chat with Reuben Lai and Akiko Otao after a rehearsal. Both of them are prominent singers in Singapore's opera scene and have formed an educational and performance collective L'Arietta. They will be presenting a triple bills of chamber operas - A Hand of Bridge by Samuel Barber, Gentlemen's Island by Joseph Horovitz and Window Shopping by Chen Zhangyi, on 2 April in a show entitled Honestly! 3 Opera, 1 Hour

Baritone Brent Allcock and mezzo-soprano Angela Hodgins make up the rest of the cast, with direction by Jameson Soh and accompanied by pianist Wayne Teo. It promises to be a musical evening where comedic and serious issues are explored. Read on to find out more.

Akiko Otao
Reuben Lai

The Mad Scene: Hi Akiko and Reuben, thanks for chatting with me tonight! Hope you guys have caught your breaths after rehearsal! What can we expect from this production? Is it going to be fully-staged with costumes and stage direction?

Akiko: Hi Steven, thank you for having us! Yes, all three operas will be fully-staged, costumed. You'll see Reuben and Brent doing hilarious things!

Reuben: Hi Steven! Yes it will be fully staged with costumes and stage direction. our director is a very experienced theatre practitioner, in fact he was one of the founding members who helped set up the actor's union back in the day. We are looking at 3 very different styles of music, very different stories, but there definitely thematic similarities.

The Mad Scene: So how has it been working with him? Jameson Soh right?

Reuben: Yes indeed. In a word: fun. It helps I think that all of us are quite experienced, so nothing is truly out of bounds!

Akiko: Jameson really helped us to build our characters, paying attention to details in the text and music to create people that are multidimensional.

Jameson Soh
The Mad Scene: Well let's discuss the pieces. Joseph Horovitz is kind of an unfamiliar composer, what is his music for Gentlemen's Island like?

Reuben: That's a very good question. he was a staff member at the Royal College of Music and yes, I believe he's still writing. The music for Gentleman's Island is very challenging; you have hints of Debussy and Delius, some Gilbert and Sullivan moments and some others of sheer dense chromaticism.

The Mad Scene: Briefly, what is the story about, and how does the music support the storytelling?

Reuben: Gentleman's Island is about 2 Victorian-era gents who get marooned on a deserted island after their boat sinks. Unfortunately for them, because they have not been introduced to each other, societal protocol dictates that they're not allowed to speak to each other, much less cooperate. Eventually they found out that they share a school friend and that breaks down the barriers.

The Mad Scene: Oh that sounds hilarious! Two British gentlemen with stiff upper lips...

Reuben: It's very silly but it also has very serious undertones about how some people would rather die than do the right thing. You'll have to watch the whole thing to see how things play out in the end.

Akiko: It's great fun watching Reuben and Brent in action, nice to see comedy in opera.

Brent Allcock
Reuben: Akiko saw some of it last week when we were staging. I think the giggles were real.

Akiko: Yes it was!

The Mad Scene: So how does the music fit in then?

Reuben: The music is impressionistic. I think that was what he was going for, a lot of the lines are speech like. The libretto was based of a play by W.S GIlbert by the way.

Akiko: It has excellent comedic timing, and the use of the two of them singing in 3rd is very operetta-esque.

The Mad Scene: When was it composed?

Reuben: In 1958. Mind you, this is the man who gave the world the Horrortorio about Dracula's daughter getting married, done in the style of a Handelian oratorio, with soloists and chorus.

The Mad Scene: Oh that sounds hilarious! Perfect for a Halloween concert! Akiko, I've seen the premiere of Chen Zhangyi's Window Shopping with you in it (Chamber Sounds's Chamber Operas in August 2014). How has the experience been so far preparing it for the second time?

Akiko: It's very different, since I'm singing the other role now. This time I'm playing the girl, and Angela Hodgins gets to lament.

Angela Hodgins
Reuben: But the role of the young girl suits you so well!

Akiko: Haha! Thanks! We've done a lot of more character development this time around, so there's a lot that we are doing consciously to hint at our back stories.

Reuben: That's the thing that Jameson brings to the table.

Akiko: But of course, none of it will be spoon fed to the audience

Reuben: The music serves the drama.

Akiko: It's important for me to keep the girl bubbly and wide-eyed, so that the audience gets a contrast. I do love Zhangyi's music in this, such beautiful melodies and delicious harmonies.

The Mad Scene: Sure. Was it the young girl who stood as a mannequin for a really long time in the first performance?

Akiko: Yes! I will not be doing that! Thank goddess! I'm not young these days!!

Reuben: Akiko, how would you describe those 5 against 3 against 7 rhythmic moments?

The Mad Scene: oh dear....

Akiko: Ok, so this opera works in chunks: first you meet the woman, then the girl enters. They have their own motifs in their own unique time signatures. Once we are both there, it's a juxtaposition of the two, and something that sounded so pretty and linear now becomes something totally different. But somehow he still makes it beautiful. Zhangyi was influenced by many French composers for this and also he quotes himself just briefly. But I won't spill the beans on what that is! Hehe... This time it's just the piano, so that brings new textures and timbers to the music.

Pianist Wayne Teo
The Mad Scene: Erm ok, I suppose we'll have to listen really carefully to find out where his self-references are! L'Arietta has done a series of masterclasses, why go into producing performances?

Reuben: We have always been about making opera. That was the raison d'etre for our formation.

Akiko: We also believe in continuing training and providing performance opportunities for our aspiring singers. The more you perform, the better you get. We want to support the next generation of singers.

The Mad Scene: Just to be clear, L'Arietta is the two of you right? Any more partners on board?

Akiko: We are the co-artistic directors.

Reuben: We are founded as a collective and collaboration is the name of the game. We will get more people on board as we grow.

The Mad Scene: 3 operas, even chamber-sized ones, seem kind of daunting for first time producers, how did you guys decide on these three pieces to present?

Akiko: We believe that opera is the love child of theatre and music. Good opera requires a good story set to music that elevates and supports the drama. So we started out with Barber's A Hand of Bridge. Its a seemingly simple story, but when you dig deeper, there's a lot happening.

Reuben: And from there we looked for operas that also fit our forces and the themes.

Akiko: One of our goals is to be a platform for current composers, local and beyond, and Window Shopping fit the bill, because let's face it, it's not really about shoes.

Reuben: Gentleman's Island too is not just about the comedy.

Akiko: Again, our characters are doing and saying one thing, but really feeling something else.

Reuben: There is an undercurrent of tragic disconnect in all our stories.

Akiko: These stories are about our intrinsic human desire to relate and connect, and what happens when that primal need is taken away.

The Mad Scene: Wow, nice! Its what operatic music and its singers should explore in my opinion, not just be making pretty sounds, although there's value in that too.

Akiko: Of course, but like I said, opera is the love child of the two worlds. It doesn't work unless if both aspects are authentic and present.

The Mad Scene: So how are you two holding up so far, being producers and performers in this production that is opening in less than 2 weeks?

Akiko: We are still alive aren't we? Hehehe...

Reuben: Yes. Barely, but still alive!

Akiko: We are having a great time learning as producers. But we are having a great time with the creative process as the performers.

Reuben: It's tough to be honest, but we wouldn't do it if we didn't love it.

Akiko: The cast is hilarious, talented and open-minded.

Reuben: It's great to be able to see the process from sides of the fence.

The Mad Scene: Nice... So what plans do you have for L'Arietta after this production?

Reuben: More shows!

Akiko: Lots of things are brewing, but if I told you, the tenor will have to kill you!

Reuben: Don't we usually leave that job to the baritones?

Akiko: Small cast. Sorry, chamber opera...

The Mad Scene: sure, leave it to the baritone to do the dirty work while the tenor gets the girl! I guess we'll find out when the time is ripe. Well that's all the questions I have, anything you guys would like to add?

Reuben: Yes. come and experience opera! Be surprised! laugh, cry, and open your hearts and minds.

Akiko: We are much better at doing the show than talking about it I think, so come see it! It's only one hour, on Orchard Road, on a Saturday! Take a break from shopping, and come! Thank you Steven for your time!

Reuben: Thanks Steven for doing this with us!

The Mad Scene: You're welcome! Goodnight Akiko and Reuben, all the best for the show!

The cast of Honestly! in rehearsal

Honestly! 3 Opera, 1 Hour is on 2 April Saturday, shows at 3pm and 7pm. Check out the Events Page to find out where to get tickets!

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