One Small Voice: Ng Siew Eng

Published on 8 December 2014

Opera is boring? Just give it a chance, says Singapore Lyric Opera’s Ng Siew Eng.

I believe opera is the art form that’s most under-appreciated. I’ve heard people say, ‘It’s boring’ and ‘I don’t understand because they sing in a foreign language’ when they haven’t even attended an opera production.

Actually, many tunes you hear are from operas. You may not recognise their names, but you’d be familiar with the tunes. Try searching on YouTube for songs like ‘Nessun Doma’ from Puccini’s Turandot or Bizet’s Carmen

I know someone who watched Carmen being performed by the Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO) four years ago. It was her first opera experience and she didn’t think she’d ever attend an opera. She was mesmerised and instantly became an opera fan!

Everyone loves a good tune. Opera has that. The SLO has done much to demystify opera and make it accessible. It is not for the elite few. We have gone out to schools, to [email protected] and created Opera in the Park to give free public performances at the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

To further ease people into opera, the SLO has put in English and Chinese translations of what is sung on stage; we even performed some classics with an Asian twist. For example, we set Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte in 1920s Southeast Asia — we changed the set but kept the music.

Similar to what was depicted in the 1990 movie Pretty Woman, opera music has been known to move people to tears. It touches you on an emotional level, even if you don’t understand the words. It’s the beauty of the human voice.

Opera singers take years to hone their skills. Most people don’t realise the amount of time and commitment that goes into a performance. And western opera is not just vocal art, but a visual spectacle. It is an art form that encompasses dance, orchestral music and design in sets, costumes and lighting.

It can cost S$450 to S$600 per seat to produce a show. We need to rent a theatre, and pay the singers, orchestra and designers. Then there are costumes, sets, marketing and other related costs. But we can only charge S$20 to S$130 a seat here, as people have not learnt to value the arts as an economic product. So tickets are heavily subsidised through fundraising, donations and sponsorship.

It is very easy to say, ‘Why do we need it when it’s not making money?’ I believe we need the arts and an arts scene that’s rich with variety. If the lack of funding kills, for example, the orchestras, dance or theatre companies here, Singapore will not be better off.

With more funding, we can better develop our outreach and education programmes. Opera exposure for children is still limited by funding, but the good news is, this Christmas, our SLO Children’s Choir and Opera Chorus will be staging a concert. 

To help you take that first step towards appreciating opera, prepare before the concert. Do a bit of reading up and listening. It will make your first opera experience more meaningful and enjoyable. Then come to the show! Get a copy of the programme — which gives background information on the opera performed — and read the subtitles at the side of the stage. You’ll find that opera really isn’t boring or hard to understand!

All Things Bright and Beautiful –  A Choral Concert will be staged at the Esplanade Concert Hall, 13 Dec, 7.30pm. Tickets available via Sistic.

Ng Siew Eng is the General Manager of the SLO, a post she has held since 2006. She has a wealth of experience as an arts manager, having previously worked with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra for 14 years, followed by the Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT) for 13 years. Ng was instrumental in starting SDT’s Ballet Under the Stars and later, SLO’s Opera in the Park, to bring the arts to the community.

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