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Bunga Mawar


Bunga Mawar

Reviewed by Stephen Chen Shengfang

Composer: Leong Yoon Pin
Libretto: Edwin Thumboo
Director: Hugh Halliday
Conductor: Lim Yau
Year: 1997

Billed as Singapore's first opera, Bunga Mawar is a sad indication that Singapore writers have yet to learn the finer points of music and drama.

The title translates into "The Rose" and herein lies the root of the problem. Nowhere in the opera is the title referred to nor is there any connection between the title and the opera except possibly in the over fertile imaginations of the authors. In the words of Ira Gershwin, "A title / is vital / once you have it / prove it". Bunga Mawar is way south of that adage.

It was a good thing I had a copy of the programme or else I wouldn't have understood what was going on. Bunga Mawar comes under what I call "clairvoyant theater", where the audience is assumed to know all the necessary background and characterizations. Let me put it this way, when I go to the theater, I expect to know what the hell is going on just by seeing and hearing what's on stage and not have to go to the theater fifteen minutes earlier to read up on the plot. In fact, if it were not for the synopsis printed in the program, I would have been totally lost. Let me quote some passages from the synopsis to show you what I mean.

"Andre Wong Chee Loong works for Father who despite very lucrative interests in property, finance and trasnport, remains totally dedicated to his favorite occupation of minting money. To keep herself busy, sister Jazreel runs a successful, avant-gardish boutique-model agency, and remains basically conservative despite her outgoing but bored lifestyle........ The turmoil encourages Jazreel to stay with friends"

Ha! They expect the audience to know all that? None of this information is given in the libretto. I am amazed that such a vital piece of information that Andre works for his father is left out of the libretto as it would mean a larger sacrifice to go against his father's wishes. I am even more amazed that the audience is expected to know or even bother to care what the sister does since she only appears in the second Act with a Gucci paper bag and a bunch of cronies. Even better yet, the synopsis describes plot points and characterizations not in the libretto. Dig the following,

"Modern in accomplishment and yet proud of her family and its Peranakan heritage, Charlotte Tan Siok Imm is mature and knows what she wants out of life"

It is amazing that all this is distilled into the fact that Charlotte wears a business suit on stage.

"Her Pa, Tan Kim Hock, now retired, used to run a tight, efficient government department, as an eagle-eyed Chief Clerk. A secret which both were equally anxious to keep was how thoroughly he has always been under the invisible iron hand of his diminutive wide Gek Neo"

And the audience knows all that from one angry comment from his wife. Wow! And don't get me started with the extraneous Dream Wedding Scene and Peranakan Wedding Pageant which opens and closes the show respectively. They made no sense and had no relation to the characters or plot.

The libretto is too evenly structured and lacks momentum or variety with its overly symmetrical six scenes. Every scene is equally long and is like reading the phone directory six times nonstop. The worst part is the incredibly unbelievably bad method of reconciling the father with his estranged family. In a move that smacks of deux de machina of a minor deity of the lowest order, the librettist had voices... yes voices, with bad reverb too I might add.... telling the Father what to do. Doesn't anyone know that voices are only perfectly legitimate in something with Joan of Arc? Otherwise, either the character or the librettist is a loony. It is a good thing this was resolved before the intermission, so everyone could go home without missing a thing in the second act. The second act had the lovers singing how in love they are in the girl's house in the first scene. The second scene had the lovers singing how in love they are in the boy's house and the third and final scene had the company singing how in love the lovers are. Great stuff no?

One of the long-standing jokes about opera are its bad lyrics but Bunga Mawar takes the cake. The ineffectual hero, Andre sings lines reminiscent of purple poetry, and most of the time the words don't sit well on the music. The exception was the Uncle's comic aria on the benefits on being single but the rest were so full of improbable lines that they become unintentionally funny. I would like to direct the authors to listen to "Casta Diva" aria from Bellini's "Norma". The words are pretty lousy but it sits on the gorgeous music so well that it becomes something really special.

Its not fair to comment on the performers; they sing well but whether they can really act remains to be seen due to the rather tepid material. The music is surprisingly wishy-washy. I appreciate a good opera with arias and accompagnatos as well as more atonal stuff like Schonberg or Glass. Bunga Mawar is neither atonal nor lyrical. The music sounds unfocused, there were no thematic developments I could discern. They were either too subtle or nonexistent entirely. The problem lies in the composer's tendency to shift harmonies frequently in mid melody, thus causing the mind to have to constantly grasp for new key structures and hence it always sounds unresolved.

What lessons can be learned from Bunga Mawar? A good poet does not a good librettist make and a good symphonic composer does not a good opera composer make. At the end of the opera, I have the nagging feeling that neither of the authors truly understand the idiom they are working in except that it will look good on their resume. Bunga Mawar is certainly the first opera --- opera fiasco that is.

Verdict : Sucks Big Time!