Sunday, February 19, 2012

Exclusive Interview with Song Kee-Chang and Huang Rong-Hai


It was 6pm of 7 February that I met up with Song Kee-Chang and Huang Rong-Hai. I was prepared to tape down the interview, with the intention of either transcribing it down in writing or simply put up the entire interview for your listening pleasure. ‘That shouldn’t be a problem’, I thought, since their booming operatic voices should not have problems projecting into my recording device, but after what must have been a long day of rehearsing caution seemed to be the order of the day, especially for Song who was speaking in a somewhat hushed tone; maybe he was looking for the right words in a language he is still trying to get comfortable with. He is a serious thinker, taking pauses to ponder on a question before offering a carefully worded answer.

Huang Rong-Hai though, despite English not being his mother tongue either, was about as animated as his character Leporello, coming up with interesting expressions and lighting-up the quiet after-hours atmosphere. If there is one thing these two foreign talents have in common, it’s their appreciation of the opera scene in Singapore and their desire to do more here. So rather than vexing you with awkward moments of hmms, huhs, inaudible bits and explanations, here's a transcription of what we have discussed:

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The Mad Scene: A very good evening to Mr Song Kee-Chang and Mr. Huang Rong-Hai, thank you for doing this interview with The Mad Scene. Firstly, how many times have you sung in Don Giovanni? Kee-Chang your bio says that you have sung the title role before, how many times have you done it?

Kee-Chang: just one time, in Korea with recitatives in Korean, so preparing for this performance was a little difficult, but I am very familiar with this opera so there is no problem.

The Mad Scene: How about you Rong-Hai? I saw in your bio that you have sung quite a few roles in this opera before…

Rong-Hai: not that many lah, just two: Leporello and Don Giovanni seven years ago.

The Mad Scene: where was that?

Rong-Hai: A production in Shanghai.

The Mad Scene: Describe your roles for us in your own words.

Kee-Chang: Giovanni is very rich, and he always tries to get women. He really enjoys them, and he finally dies for his sins after a ghostly encounter.

Rong-Hai: Leporello is the servant of Don Giovanni. What I understand about him is that he is of a lower rank than Don Giovanni. Sometimes he really admires Giovanni’s lifestyle, all the good things such as good wine, good food and good women, LOTs of women! Every man in the world would like to be Don Giovanni, but in real life this is not possible, so I (as Leporello) really admires what he can do. But Don Giovanni treats me very badly, I work very hard, all day and all night, and for this reason I am really tired of him. In Act 2 I really want to leave him, although sometimes he is very good to me, especially with money; he wants to keep me following him, so he is good to me but only when necessary. So these are the two sides of Leporello.

The Mad Scene: So it’s a bit of a love-hate relationship that he has with Don Giovanni?

Rong-Hai: Yes, and Leporello is really a kind man, a noble man. His heart is good, but sometimes he will act a little like Don Giovanni, because they spend every day together sometimes he will be influenced by and try to act like Don Giovanni.

The Mad Scene: Kee-Chang, is there any aspects of Don Giovanni that is similar to your own character?

Rong-Hai: I think what is trying to say is… are YOU Don Giovanni?

Kee-Chang: Well I think I’m a really good man, so no! He is really a different character from who I am.

The Mad Scene: If so is it difficult to act as him?

Kee-Chang: it’s really not difficult for me, because Mozart has already written out his character in the score, so I just have to follow his instructions, and insert my characterization accordingly. Really Mozart has already done the work for me.

The Mad Scene: How about you Rong-Hai, is there something in Leporello’s character that you feel is close to your’s?

Rong-Hai: I think my nature is not really like Leporello’s, my character can be quite serious, but he’s really not me. When I’m onstage I just change my character, but I think I can play a character that is comic, because I have also played Dr. Bartolo in Barbiere and Don Magnifico in Cenerentola, so these three characters have something similar, as they are all funny roles. The recitatives between Don Giovanni and Leporello are full of jokes, so we just have to bring out the real meaning of their conversations, which is really a lot of fun. Of course our physical movements must fit these conversations, so that the flavor of the music will come out. Also the music is really good for bass baritones, so this role is really good for me.

The Mad Scene: I think Mozart’s music suits voices very well, which makes singing his music easy.

Rong-Hai: Yes but Mozart’s music can also be difficult to sing. If your technique is not very good, it’s really difficult to sing his music. You will understand if you are the singer; as a listener you may not understand how it can be difficult, but if you try to sing it yourself you will understand.

Kee-Chang: you have to include a lot of expression, just like singing Bach. Bach’s music is very difficult as requires a lot of expression, but done in a way that does not intrude on the music.



The Mad Scene: Why do you think that Leporello is so loyal to Don Giovanni even though he is so badly treated by the Don?

Rong-Hai: Loyal?

The Mad Scene: yeah, he keeps say he wants to quit but he doesn’t do so. Why do you think this is so?

Rong-Hai: I think he must receive a lot of benefits from Don Giovanni; first and foremost is the money. And you know in Chinese there is a saying, “know the dog’s master first before you beat it (打狗要看主人)”, Don Giovanni is a very powerful master, so his servants also benefit from their master’s power.

The Mad Scene: so people won’t dare to bully him because his master is so powerful?

Rong-Hai: Yes… and he gets a little bit of power because he is the servant of Don Giovanni. So even though I (as Leporello) keep saying that I want to leave Don Giovanni, the fact is that I need him, and he needs me too. We have a connection, like he’s my dad.

The Mad Scene: Which CDs or DVDs of Don Giovanni have you listened to that you would like to recommend to our readers?

Kee-Chang: I like Bryn Terfel’s interpretation. His expression is correct, very soft and supported.

The Mad Scene: Yes I really like Bryn Terfel too! The way he expresses music is so natural but so musical as well.

Kee-Chang: That’s important and in the Act II serenade I like it to be softer, and try to do it really like him.

Rong-Hai: I really agree about Bryn Terfel. He’s a really really good actor, and I think he really does the music and drama in a very connected way, which is why he is so great. He makes the music have drama in a very natural way, but the voice is also very good, its full of changes and vocal colours, full of colours, more Italian than the Italians!

While preparing for the role I have observed five different versions of Don Giovanni, different conductors and directors, and my interpretation is kind of a mixture of these five. Some ideas are my own, some are from the director, and some are taken from these five DVDs.


The Mad Scene: You two have sung in Singapore many times, of course Rong-Hai you live in Singapore now, what do you think is special about the opera scene here, which you have seldom seen elsewhere?

Kee-Chang: what is special? Well the SLO has given me a beard (referring to the thick facial hair he now sports in preparation for the performance). I have sung many roles here, beginning with Traviata and including Boheme and Hoffmann. Mostly there is just one cast here, no cast A or cast B, and can be difficult for singers because if someone falls sick, he still has to go on no matter what.

The Mad Scene: but on the other hand you get all the glory right? With no comparisons between the other singer performing the same role…

Kee-Chang: well yes but there’s still a risk there. I also love coming to Singapore at this time of the year because it’s so warm here and I get to escape the winter in Korea.

Also, Singapore has a very short history of producing opera, but you have produced a very wide range of operas. In Korea, in addition to the National Opera Company, there are over one hundred other companies! There are so many opera singers in Korea, just like China, but they only make the famous operas, because they need to sell tickets and it’s very difficult to do other works. But in Singapore I guess it is also difficult but you try the difficult operas, like Hoffmann and Salome, so I really like the opera scene here.

The Mad Scene: How about you Rong-Hai? I guess you have done much more here including recitals, concerts and competitions?

Rong-Hai: Now I understand the opera scene here more and more, as I have been here for more than one year. For me my work with SLO has been very good for me, because for singers there is a very good atmosphere here, everyone here is kind and full of passion. It’s much better than just sitting by the piano teaching. As a singer you really have to be in operas, you can’t just spend the whole year teaching by the piano, that is really boring. As SLO is the only opera company in Southeast Asia, if ever the SLO closes shop, there won’t be any more opera in Southeast Asia!

The Mad Scene: Well there is the Bangkok Opera which does has also received lots of publicity for their very adventurous programming; although I’ve never attended any of their performances I read about them all the time. Nancy sings there a lot though. But I guess what you say is true, in that besides them and the SLO there won’t be any more opera in Southeast Asia.

Rong-Hai: But I’m curious as Singapore is such a rich country, why isn’t there more support for opera? Why just two productions a year?

The Mad Scene: I think it could be that not many Singaporeans know what opera is about; we don’t really have the music education from young, so many may think it’s only for rich people to attend. But I think music education here is growing slowly, and more and more young people do understand what it is about. But of course these things take time to grow, and how soon we will see results are hard to say.

But Kee Chang you said that in Korea there are over a hundred opera companies, and Rong-Hai you also said that in China there are also a lot of companies, whereas in Singapore there is just one. Are there any benefits to having less opera productions here? As opposed to being in Korea where you get more opportunities to work, which situation do you prefer?

Kee-Chang: in Korea there is a lot of trouble between singers, a lot of competition.

The Mad Scene: Well some people may think that competition will bring out the best singers…

Kee-Chang: yes but it is very emotionally and mentally tiring, as we are always trying, preparing to get ahead and outdo each other, a lot of stress. Korea is very developed in classical music, lots of competitions, so the scene is really mature. In comparison, there is less competing to do in Singapore, so you can to concentrate on what you are doing properly.

Also you have such a wonderful theatre at the Esplanade, so it will be really wonderful if more operas can be staged here.

The Mad Scene: How about you Rong-Hai? Do you prefer to fight it out in China, or do you prefer to just work on your two operas a year here?

Rong-Hai: for me it’s really not bad here, because I get to work on my two operas a year here, and I still have my contacts in Beijing so I work there often as well, and I have my teaching jobs too. So life here is really good, because sometimes you need time to rest and prepare new things, so I have a good balance here.

Huang Rong-Hai

The Mad Scene: Did you manage to do any sight-seeing while in Singapore? Have you won any money at the casinos?

Kee-Chang: oh I have been inside the casino, but I didn’t gamble, just looked around. The first time I came here I went to Sentosa, Clarke Quay, and Takashimaya. Oh and I really like the supermarkets here!

The Mad Scene: Really? What’s different from the ones here and Korea?

Kee—Chang: it’s the same actually, haha….

The Mad Scene: Opera is such an international business now, people from all across the world can come together to sing the same things, in this case Don Giovanni. What do you think is special about being Asian singers that make us different from singers from other cultures, Westerners for example? How about being Chinese and Korean?

Rong-Hai: Actually I think there’s no difference, apart from the faces. The technique and expression is the same. Nowadays many Asian students go to the West to study anyway so there really is no difference. Maybe for 20, 30 years ago there may be some differences language-wise, where we just had the voice but not much else, but now I don’t think Asian singers are really any different. So we are not bad compared to the West.

The Mad Scene: Well definitely Asian singers have come a long way and we can put on a good show in our own right. So one last thing, in summary, can you please tell our readers why they have to come and watch Don Giovanni?

Kee-Chang: Basically in the world of classical music, Mozart is a very important figure. His music has the ability to improve the minds of young people, his operas are very good and contain wide emotions, such as delight and sorrow, and he wrote some very dramatic scenes, such as the final scene where he is dragged into hell. It’s good drama and moral education for young people. It has fun and serious moments at the same time, so you should come and see it.

Rong-Hai: I think people who read your website must know about opera and classical music…

The Mad Scene: Yes, my readers love their high e-flats!

Rong-Hai: that’s why they should come because it really is a classic of the operatic repertoire. The drama is really funny, it’s not boring opera, so you really should come.

The Mad Scene: Ok, thank you so much Kee-Chang and Rong-Hai, all the best for your show!

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The Singapore Lyric Opera's production of Don Giovanni runs on 24, 25, 27 and 28 February. Tickets are available at SISTIC. 

3 comments:

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed the performance last night at the Esplanade. Well done SLO!!

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  2. Enjoyed Don Giovanni tremendously! I am in awe of the voices of the main cast. KUDOS TO SLO! :D

    ReplyDelete

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