Western opera originated in Italy many centuries ago and caught on in other countries across Europe in the years that followed. Now, though, with 21st-century technology and incredible performances just a click away, the art is getting more attention in Asia than ever before. China has numerous cutting-edge opera houses and South Korea produces fantastic singers, many of whom go on to establish themselves globally.
The Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO), of which I am the honorary artistic director, organises many full-scale opera productions as well as concerts, like Opera in the Park, where I’ve seen even younger audiences get animated as they recognise pieces from popular movie soundtracks or commercials. At formal performances, the classics are generally in languages like Italian or German, but once audiences are drawn in – perhaps with surtitles during shows or pre-performance introductions – language is not a barrier.
“What continues to draw audiences to opera is the unrestrained beauty and power of the human voice, unadulterated by artificial amplification”
Asians aren’t often associated with big operatic voices, but as an international performer and voice educator, I can attest that anyone with functioning vocal chords and passion has the ability to hone that technique – it just has to be developed in the right direction. The SLO has numerous young artist training platforms like the SLO Children’s Choir, the SLO Chorus and the SLO-Leow Siak Fah Artists’ Training Programme, while the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music produced its first batch of voice graduates in 2016.
In some Asian countries, the scene is smaller, probably due to fewer resources for stage performances, but people across the board are working for positive change. In Thailand, for instance, Opera Siam pushes hard for government and commercial support, and has already staged concerts in New York’s famed Carnegie Hall. Both Singapore and Hong Kong boast numerous outreach programmes, where artists perform in public venues like shopping malls. Many trained singers are gaining recognition and even setting up small companies staging edited or chamber operas, so more people are seeing that it’s possible to make opera a viable career.
As for myself, I’ll play the title role in SLO’s Aida this year. Some associate the show with pyramids, elephants and general extravagance, but opera is evolving with the times – this one will have a relatively minimalist aesthetic.
Ultimately, what continues to draw audiences to opera is the unrestrained beauty and power of the human voice, unadulterated by artificial amplification. It connects audiences with something unspeakably wonderful that you feel deep within your system. That’s why opera has been around for over three hundred years, and will continue for thousands more.
Aida is taking place 1–6 June at the Esplanade Theatre in Singapore.
– ILLUSTRATION BY STUART PATIENCE
This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of SilverKris magazine.