Profile: New Opera Singapore

Published on 5 January 2016

New Opera Singapore aims to change the perception of Western opera in Singapore from hoity-toity to hot-ticket.

BY Jo Tan

“In school, I studied Classical Voice as part of the music education programme, and played in a rock band. Classical seemed the more serious career choice, so I went to the Manhattan School of Music to study opera. Now, there’s a real market for Singapore rock/pop musicians, but it’s still very hard for opera singers to work here,” sighs 30-year-old Jonathan Charles Tay.

Tay, though, is not among the unemployed: last year, he became New Opera Singapore’s (NOS) resident artist and one of Singapore’s few full-time salaried classical singers. “One of the most difficult things about being a musician here is the lack of steady work,” says NOS’ artistic director, Jeong Ae-Ree. “We felt the only way to ensure artists will feel comfortable about choosing music as a profession is if they have a commitment from arts groups, so we started this artist-in-residence programme to lay the foundation. Jonathan has studied and performed in the US, but chose to return to Singapore to contribute to the arts scene here. We feel it’s our responsibility to nurture the local industry.”

And that’s exactly what NOS has been doing. Rather than import talents for operas, they hire locals and provide performance opportunities through regular community concerts (often in heartlands as part of their Who’s Afraid of Opera? outreach programme) and full-scale, ticketed professional operas. “Since we were founded in 2012, we’ve seen huge progress in talent levels here. Music, after all, is a performing art — it’s only through repeated performances that singers get to develop,” says Jeong.

The group also develops audiences by staging accessible productions like Benjamin Britten’s modern opera The Turn of the Screw, a psychological, supernatural thriller about a governess employed to take care of two mysterious children. NOS have also produced several original productions where classic arias meet hilarious or harrowing storylines, such as A Knife in the Dark, which amalgamated dark songs by Kurt Weill into a bloody tale of serial-killer Mack the Knife. Their humorous Opera Comique series is another winner.

“That’s like Glee,  we take all these numbers and duets and have them written into a funny script,” explains Tay. “People have told me they really enjoyed their virgin opera with NOS, and would come back for more. It’s exciting. If you attend an opera in New York or Chicago, it’s mostly white hair on white faces. At NOS, the audience is often made up of young people, and of different races.”

Adds Jeong, “The scene here needs an adrenaline shot to show audiences and artists this art form is dynamic, alive and powerfully relevant today. NOS would like to be the catalyst for that.”

New Opera Singapore performs Fête Blanche: Baroque Music in White on 8 January at the Esplanade Recital Studio.

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