Oriental Odyssey

Published on 17 February 2015

Into its 13th year, the annual Huayi — Chinese Festival of Arts continues to redefine its boundaries and scope to offer multicultural audiences a good time.

TEXT BY JO TAN

It may be named Huayi — Chinese Festival of Arts (or Huayi for short), but you may be surprised by how some of the programmes in this year’s line-up veer away from what may be considered traditionally Chinese.

Savage Land — An Opera in Concert by the Singapore Chinese Orchestra is a Western-style opera, complete with brassy baritones, staged in Chinese. Directed by Goh Boon Teck, this festival headliner is adapted from The Wilderness, a classic play by Chinese playwright Cao Yu, that simmers and provokes with tragedy and drama.

Innovative erhu musician George Gao, together with his ensemble Shaoqin Bang, show off their prowess on an erhu variant, playing tunes from Michael Jackson and other musical genres ranging from blues and country to rock. Hong Kong director Edward Lam presents a play loosely based on the classic Dream of the Red Chamber, introducing a modern take and brand-new title most might consider pretty audacious to be classically Chinese: What Is Sex?

“Chinese artists, like most artists, create works by drawing from their experiences, backgrounds and influences. People these days are also well-travelled,” says Mimi Yee, the Esplanade Co. Ltd producer who has helmed the Huayi festival since its inception in 2003.

“From these works, Huayi chooses some of the most dynamic artistic expressions by Chinese artists from Singapore and beyond, whether traditional or modern, whether they employ Chinese and/or Western art forms.”

Indeed, to Singaporeans, who grow up with a hodgepodge of worldwide cultural influences, it’s harder to pin down what being ‘Chinese’ means beyond race and language. Talk about liking “Chinese music” here and you would more likely be talking about Jay Chou’s blend of R&B than the works of the Beijing Opera. Reflecting this trend, the Singapore Chinese singers featured in the festival have all scored regional attention with their universal sound, such as bilingual belter Olivia Ong or Ling Kai, who was invited to record debut tracks in Australia. Even in the free festival programmes, you’ll get to hear everything from getai and xinyao to local indie compositions as part of the Chinese tunes on tap.

It’s in support of Singapore’s cosmopolitan outlook that this year’s SG50 installment of Huayi presents several commissions partnering local artists with contemporaries from elsewhere in the Chinese diaspora. Shares Yee, “The Esplanade believes in providing collaborative opportunities for local and international talent. In Huayi this year, we will see Singapore’s Metropolitan Festival Orchestra paired with top-notch composer/conductor Tan Dun to present his acclaimed piece Nu Shu and other works.” In a similar vein, the abovementioned Savage Land — An Opera in Concert will see local theatre luminary Goh Boon Teck directing vocalists from China and Singapore.

Naturally, the festival recognises that not just Huayi artists, but its audience members, too, are multicultural. “All our ticketed performances have English surtitles to make it accessible to those who are non-Chinese as Huayi is also enjoyed by audiences from various races who are curious about Chinese artists, or who wish to expose their children to Mandarin by watching our children’s programmes, or who just like the energy of the getai. Our free programmes have become a staple for many as part of their Chinese New Year celebrations.”

Of course, there are the quintessentially Oriental acts among the programme picks, such as crosstalk, Chinese calligraphy and the mandatory lion dance, presenting polar opposites to concerts like CouCou on Mars that involve sensor technology and mechatronics.

Yee explains, “We have to keep thinking about how to bring in new audiences as well as keep existing audiences returning to the festival every year. Keeping the festival relevant is another consideration. The entire team brainstorms and debates about what should go into the festival each year. What is the experience we wish to create for  audiences? We’ve come to accept working over the Chinese New Year holidays as part and parcel of the job,” she says with a laugh.

PHOTO George Gao
Bilingual belters Olivia Kwok and Ling Kai (above). PHOTO  Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay
PLAY IT YOUR WAY The diverse music acts on offer at Huayi 2015 range from orchestral tunes with strains of the erhu and guzheng under the baton of Tan Du, to the sounds of wind, thunder and rustling grain in dance masterpiece Rice, to mad mechatronics at CouCou on Mars.

There’s just about no task too tough to stop Yee and her team from making Huayi fabulous. “When pulling together the beautiful opera Peony Pavilion in the first Huayi festival, we had to build a pond on the Esplanade Theatre stage as part of the set. We even had to go round town hunting for livestock like koi, Mandarin ducks and other birds to fill the pond. It was fun tending to the animals, keeping them warm after the cold air-conditioning in the theatre each evening, and sunning them in the morning before they returned to the theatre for their next performance. Audiences were charmed whenever they saw the set and heard the birds singing serenely even before the show began.”

Smiles Yee, “The satisfaction of putting shows like that together and knowing we’ve created a memorable experience for audiences — that makes the work truly memorable for me.”

The Huayi — Chinese Festival of the Arts runs from 20 Feb – 1 Mar at various venues in the Esplanade, with certain activities held in [email protected]

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