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Fences: the opera

Fences small.jpg

Fences is a new opera with a libretto by Robert Yeo and music by John Sharpley, produced by OperaViva, and staged at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts on 18-19 August 2012. It is a Romeo and Juliet story where the parents of the pair of lovers object to their marriage. Instead of feuding families, the opera substitutes the political altercation between Malaya and Singapore of the tumultuous 1960s.

Chinese Singaporean, Steven (David Quah), meets Nora (Akiko Otao), a Malay from Kuala Lumpur. Both are studying in London in the early 1960s just before the formation of Malaysia. They have been stood up by their respective dates, and they start chatting, with the expected result of their falling in love.

Running parallel to the love story is the imminent political union of Malaya and Singapore into the state of Malaysia. The music and lyrics cleverly express both the optimism of the period, as well as the undercurrents of impending racial conflict between the Malays and the Chinese. When Steven and Nora’s parents find out that they are dating each other, the two fathers voice their strong objections to their union, while the two mothers are accommodating. The scene culminates in a beautiful quartet.

The crowd scenes are an important aspect of the story, and initially the Malaysians and Singaporeans are enthusiastic about the merger, but later scenes reflect the deterioration between the two countries. When Steven returns home, he is admonished by his father (Reuben Lai) who has a mild heart attack when his son defies him and leaves home. Steven wanders into Geylang Serai and encounters a Malay religious procession, where he is beaten up and badly injured. In the meantime Nora’s father (Nomer Son) tells her that he has found a suitable husband for her. This precipitates her leaving Kuala Lumpur for Singapore, with the support of her mother (Satsuki Nagatome). Steven meets her at the Tanjong Pagar train station. Both sets of parents have found out about their children, and they also arrive at the station. The fathers denounce their union, while the mothers support them. A brilliant sextet expresses all points of view simultaneously. Steven’s father is emotionally distraught by his son’s continued rebellion against his authority, suffers a heart attack and dies. The story ends with Steven and Nora deciding to emigrate to Australia, and Steven’s mother (Anna Ivanenko) sends them off at Keppel Harbor.

Overall, the production is of a high professional quality. The direction by Chandran K Lingam, is intelligent and sensitive. All the lead singers have fine voices and good acting abilities. The 32-member strong chorus, conducted by Darius Lim, is outstanding and it enhances the dramatic elements. Darrell Ang conducts a 40-piece orchestra with panache, and supports the singers superbly. Special mention should be made of the set design, which includes the effective use of back projection to depict different scenes, and the clever use of the four relief sculptures from the Tanjong Pagar railway station.

Robert Yeo’s libretto is concise and expresses the subtle shifts in emotions. Some of the best operas have the ability to bring time to a standstill, which intensifies the emotions. Fences tries to tell the story too quickly to permit this. The love between Steven and Nora is sketchy; they start quarrelling very early on, and when they make-up it does not feel convincing. The political backdrop could have been more clearly expressed with historical video footages of the time. This is important for those who are unfamiliar with the merger of Singapore and Malaya, and the subsequent separation.

John Sharpley’s atonal(1) music is appealing, and reflects well the changes in mood. At times the music is light and humorous, at other times luscious and romantic, and when the scene requires it, the music can be combative or solemn. He effectively employs ethnic instruments like the erhu, yangqin and bamboo flute for Chinese family scenes, with marimba and other percussive instruments for the Malay settings. The music is a joy to listen to, and is the major factor in the success of the opera.

Fences the opera is an important landmark in Singapore’s music scene. It is a significant new work, and deserves a wider international audience.

Reviewed by Kenneth Lyen

18 October 2012

YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkUbweIVvSc


(1) Atonal refers to music having no established key. Wikipedia lists late 19th- and early 20th-century composers of atonal music, including Alexander Scriabin, Claude Debussy, Béla Bartók, Paul Hindemith, Sergei Prokofiev, and Igor Stravinsky.