An operatic debut

12 October 2017 | Education
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Wei-Wei (3rd from left) and Amelia (2nd from right) with several members of the chorus of shepherds and shepherdesses

The Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (YST Conservatory) at NUS took its first foray into the operatic scene with its staging of Handel’s Acis & Galatea, performed by a cast and orchestra consisting almost entirely of YST Conservatory students, on 6 and 7 October.

The 18th century opera tells the story of mortal Acis and nymph Galatea, whose love is thwarted by the monster Polypheme. Li Wei-Wei in Year 4 and Lim Jing Jie in Year 2 were selected to play Galatea and Polypheme respectively. Both students are no strangers to operas and stage performances, with Wei-Wei having participated in an opera performance in Italy and Jing Jie having sung in smaller chamber operas and taken on chorus roles in other operas. These were however the first major roles for the students.

Jing Jie was excited though a little apprehensive initially about playing the villain, as Polypheme the cyclops is big, coarse and ugly, rather unlike the slender student himself. In preparation, he watched performances online to obtain an idea of the opera and the character. “I think it was also important to portray Polypheme in my own way, given that I’m still much younger than most singers who have done the role professionally and my physical stature was a stark contrast,” he explained.

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Jing Jie as Polypheme expressing his desire for Galatea

Speaking of her approach, Wei-Wei said that she initially watched performances of Galatea in other operas. “But then I realised that I should create my own Galatea as everyone has different life experiences and these affect how we react on the stage,” she shared.

Professor Alan Bennett, Head of Vocal Studies, had been hoping to present an opera for some time but had waited to find the ideal production which would fit the singers currently in the programme.  “Last year we realised that Acis & Galatea would be a project that we could present well,” he said.

While this performance is smaller in scale than most of Handel’s other operas, the Conservatory also had to grapple with challenges, such as sourcing for accompaniment performers who were familiar with music from that period, as well as for props, shared YST Conservatory Dean Professor Bernard Lanskey. Speaking of other challenges, Prof Bennett said, “The lighting resources were creatively handled by our stage technician while Associate Professor Jason Lai, the conductor of the orchestra, was able to employ a historically informed approach using modern instruments.”

The best realisation for the students was to explore how a visual dramatic component can inform how they interpret and present the music.

Preparation for the opera took several months, with rehearsals for the chorus beginning in August, and rehearsals for the main cast with the 18-strong orchestra starting in September. The students involved even returned for full school days during recess week for stage rehearsals.

Through the experience, Jing Jie learned about the power of thought and intention. “For example, anger and rage do not necessarily equate to being loud, and there are many ways to express a certain emotion at varying extents,” he elaborated.

Wei-Wei felt that it was insightful to work with experienced names in the classical scene, including guest artistes Mr Nicholas Scott, who played Acis; and Ms Sophie Daneman, the stage director and stylistic coach. “There were some moments when I could not get into the role but they could always feel it right before I fall farther and pull me back by giving me advice,” she said. The performance also featured fellow students Baek Jongwoo and Amelia Hayes in supporting roles as Damon and Corydon respectively.

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Assoc Prof Lai (in black suit in the front row) taking a curtain call with the cast and orchestra

Speaking of the educational value of the musical drama for the students, Prof Bennett said, “The best realisation for the students was to explore how a visual dramatic component can inform how they interpret and present the music.”

Prof Lanskey shared that the Conservatory is interested in trying to chart new territories so that what it does might stay as fresh as possible. “[The opera] was a great project but we are also keen to build our reach in a range of unconventional as well as conventional settings. One of the most interesting dimensions of this project was pushing the boundaries of what we can do in our Concert Hall and in our building — perhaps that is the more interesting avenue for immediate exploration,” he explained.

Close to a thousand people attended the two performances at the Conservatory Concert Hall, which was also streamed live online.