Its been ages since The Mad Scene has done a personal interview, mostly because it takes forever to complete one. I hadn't spoken much to Jeong Ae-Ree besides exchanging a few words during performance intermissions, but having followed each other's work in the scene for so long we just started chatting like we are BFFs, sharing admiration for each other's work. Ae-Ree was simply bursting with excitement when discussing her new company, New Opera Singapore, and what it can do for young singers and opera lovers in Singapore. So carried away with our chat that I forgot to take a picture for this article!
Anyway, New Opera Singapore's latest project is the second installment of their Opera Comique series, subtitled In the Classroom. It promises to be a funny and light-hearted presentation of opera arias by talented young singers. Here is what we talked about:
The Mad Scene: Hi Ae-Ree! Thanks for doing this interview with The Mad Scene. Firstly, please tell us what is the story of Opera Comique II: in the Classroom about? What is the first thing that audiences will see when they come in?
Ae-Ree: Well in the beginning, they will see a university classroom, at the first day of freshman lecture. The lecture starts and… well I don’t know what to say, so you’ll just have to see it!
The Mad Scene: It a funny show right?
Ae-Ree: Yes that’s why we call it Opera Comique! We want it to be light hearted. Its about young people struggling to find love, which is very important at their age.
The Mad Scene: I read that a teacher gets into some trouble too…
The Mad Scene: Is it based on your own teaching experience by any chance?
Ae-Ree: No not that sort of thing, haha….
The Mad Scene: It’s wonderful that your troupe goes the extra mile to present an evening of songs, departing from the usual stand-and-sing recitals. Describe the process of putting together this show for us, what kind of work goes into the final product that we will see on 17 February?
Ae-Ree: So far it has been ok but difficult for us, because you know many young singers have to study or work somewhere else, so we can only rehearse at night, like from 7 to 11pm. Also because we have very little budget but we want quality, so we engaged a fantastic director to help us out, he was very nice and kind and agreed to work with us.
The Mad Scene: What I’m interested to know is… you guys engaged this director, Mr. Goh Ming-Siu, and he came up with this script… did he just write a script on his own, or did he workshop with the singers on what they want to sing and what they can do onstage?
Ae-Ree: Oh it’s the first one: I gave him a list of songs that I gathered from a handful of singers; I asked them what they wanted to sing, what songs do they do best, and I sent the lyrics and translations over to Ming-Siu and he wrote based on that, which I guess was very tough work but he did a fantastic job. It was very nice, very fun, and when I first read it I was laughing so hard! But I felt that it was a little bit too strong, as there are some under-aged students in the cast, two 16 year olds, so for them the script is a little bit too… the storyline was a little bit too provocative! So we had to tame it down a little, make it suggestive but not really showing too much.
The Mad Scene: Well some provocative bits in opera are always good.
Ae-Ree: Yes we still left in some naughty stuff, and if people still want to complain about what is left then I really don’t know what to say, because we know that opera stories are not always virtuous. So we made this storyline a little bit milder, more family friendly, but maintaining its suggestiveness in keeping to the spirit of comedy. I do hope that one day I don’t have to do all this filtering and just present what the scriptwriter has done, but for now some of my cast is a little bit too young.
The Mad Scene: OK so I guess we will be seeing a cast of young and more mature talents, so its quite a good mix then.
Ae-Ree: Yes, quite a good mix.
The Mad Scene: New Opera Singapore received a lot of news when you announced auditions for L’elisir d’amore, how are preparations coming along? What can we look forward to that is perhaps different from other opera productions in Singapore?
Ae-Ree: Well our cast list is fixed, with an A and B cast, and they are all Singaporeans or residents who live in Singapore. I’ve had a lot of people who sent in their videos for auditions… its amazing that when we put these audition notices on the internet people all the way from Germany, France and the UK all sent in their videos which makes deciding quite difficult. But the reason why I want to help set up a new opera company here is to promote local artists, people who are here in Singapore, so while there are better ones outside, I made it my mission to raise and protect local talent, so this is what I’m aiming at. Of course nobody is a perfect singer right from the start, there will always be problems in the beginning but with time they will become better and better. That’s the way we raise our talent to international star quality. Outside of Singapore, take Europe for example, if they have one star tenor in their country, then the whole country supports him, promoting him and giving him as many performance opportunities as possible, and that’s how they raise their own talents to international stardom. But somehow this is not so for Singapore, and we have this older mindset that only older people can sing or enjoy opera. I disagree with this and I want to prove that we have the talent but they have not had the chance to bloom. So if we can give them the opportunities to bloom and grow then we will also have world-class talents to call our own. But we have to work hard for it.
So our upcoming projects are firstly Opera Comique II: in the Classroom, followed by L’elisir d’amore, and of course my performers are all very good and talented for their age. And even though they are not in the middle of a professional career, I hope that they will become better through these experiences. I’m not trying to protect them if they sing wrongly or make mistakes, but people should know this is where they are starting and given time, I hope Singaporeans can see that they will become world-class talents as well.
The Mad Scene: We definitely appreciate your dedication. I personally believe that Singapore has a lot of good voices but that we lack the opportunity to grow, so we really appreciate the chances you are giving us.
Ae-Ree: Well I don’t want to give people the impression that I’m doing it alone, because it really is a team effort.
The Mad Scene: Of course… but we have to start somewhere so why not with this? But why L’elisir d’amore, why not some other operas?
Ae-Ree: Yeah we were discussing about that from the start, whether we should put up an English opera so that people might understand us a little better, but these days with technology these are not big problems actually what with subtitles and such, everybody can understand what’s going on.
I was thinking of choosing something by Donizetti or Belllini, because they are from what we call the golden age of vocal music…
The Mad Scene: You mean the bel canto period?
Ae-Ree: Yes! And that is the golden period of vocal music, so why not introduce something from that period? And L’elisir is a more light-hearted opera compared to their other works. I also think it’s not that heavy for young voices. I think many young voices tend to touch too heavy music, too heavy roles, which is quite dangerous in my opinion, so I think L’elisir is quite suitable for young singers. It can be taxing though, as the singers taking on Adina and Nemorino have to be onstage most of the time, but if have good technique, you can really improve a lot.
The Mad Scene: I think the key is that this opera is challenging for young singers but not dangerously so?
Ae-Ree: Yes yes, that’s the reason I chose that. Also in Singapore we have so many good tenors, I always say that in Singapore we have so many more tenors than baritones or basses, and L’elisir is really more of a tenor opera, what with those two famous arias Quanto e bella and Una furtive lagrima… but Adina also has an aria that is not very known. When most people think of L’elisir d’amore they only think of those two arias, so why not start with this really fantastic tenor opera?
The Mad Scene: I think it’s really good that you guys are doing something funny, since we seldom get to laugh at recitals and operas, so it’s something different that we can look forward to. What are your hopes for New Opera Singapore? For example, where do you see it heading towards in the next 5 years? How do you think it’s going to grow?
Ae-Ree: Well I have a very big dream! I don’t know if it’s ever going to come true but I really must believe that someday it will. I believe that one day, I’m not sure when, maybe in five years or much longer if we are very lucky, maybe we will have our own theatre, and we can have performances every month, and we can have paid contract singers for every performance, including a professional choir and orchestra, so a really proper opera company. I want New Opera to be like the SSO which performs every week, since there is such a thing for instrumentalists so why not for voice? So I hope that New Opera Singapore will be in a position to create jobs for singers, since we have so many music institutes now like SOTA, NAFA, Yong Siew Toh and Raffles College of Music, but nothing after that, no stages! So what are these trained singers going to do? Despite being graduated and have good talent, if there is no place that they could excel through performances, their standard will drop. This is what has been happening until now, so now is the time for us to create jobs and make things happen, not only for artists but also to give the community some good quality opera as well.
A lot of people think of opera as something high-class for elitist people, but I want to prove that if there is just a little bit of information, everybody can enjoy it. So we provide something light-hearted, and do school, community centre concerts which we have done some and are working with NAC to do more, so it’s all going to happen very soon and you will see how we educate people about opera and art songs, really all forms of vocal music.
Unlike pop music, most people think of classical music as only for the minority. And while this is true it is only because of lack of information, but if we really inform them properly I’m sure we will have a really lasting audience who will really enjoy the beautiful music that we give to them. That is really a really important mission for us.
The Mad Scene: I like your thoughts about providing information to the public, In fact that’s why I wanted to set up The Mad Scene, because I feel that there is not a lot of information provided, so I hope to do something for opera lovers here. But how about your own performances? Despite your fantastic experience in performing full opera roles, Singaporeans have mostly seen you in recitals of art songs and baroque arias, not yet in operas or even a pastiche opera like Opera in the Classroom. Do you have any desire to take part in a more theatrical show yourself?
Ae-Ree: Well last December I had to put on my own recital, and that was during one of the busiest periods in my life managing things at SOTA and New Opera, but I’m also a singer as well and I have to develop myself too. But the next recital won’t be so soon, I may do some chamber concerts or stuff with the SSO, but no full-length shows for the moment, at least not this year.
The Mad Scene: But will you take part in something theatrical like Opera Comique in the Classroom?
Ae-Ree: Well I have to make it clear that I will not sing with New Opera Singapore because this is really not for me. I want to be very fair and if I sing with them then I don’t think I can be very fair, because then everything will be orientated around myself, maybe not on purpose but I might not be very fair when sharing resources. But when I have my recital or outside engagements then of course New Opera Singapore will support me, but I will not be singing in their productions, because it’s really for young singers of Singapore.
The Mad Scene: Well that’s very noble of you. But if some other company offers something theatrical for you?
Ae-Ree: Yeah then of course I would love to, if I like the role and have time, and if we agree on the conditions, then why not?
The Mad Scene: I read in a Straits Times interview that you did where you said that you wouldn’t mind using the attention you had received from the Romanian Ambassador incident to promote New Opera Singapore to non-opera lovers?
Ae-Ree: Well I really don’t like the word ‘using’… what I meant was that if people want to give me attention for that, which is such a silly thing, then I guess it’s ok because it’s nothing new, but if they like to give me attention, then I can use that attention to talk about New Opera Singapore. I don’t really like the attention but if that’s the only way people will notice New Opera Singapore, then why not? But I hope that people remember me for other things next time, such as my work in New Opera Singapore.
The Mad Scene: Well I have to say that those of us who attend recitals regularly already know of you as a famous performer in your own right, so you are very well-known to us already.
Ae-Ree: Thank you! I have say though that I get a little hot sometimes when people talk about it, but that’s life and I just have to get over it.
Another point that I want to bring up is that the Singapore Government is very supportive about arts companies, they are very willing to spend.
The Mad Scene: Really? People seldom say that about the Government when it comes to the arts.
Ae Ree: yes they are very supportive, that’s why we can do more and more opera.
Me: I had just spoken to Mr Song Kee Chang (more on that in future posts), and he said that there are over 100 opera companies but all producing the same operas.
Ae Ree: Yes, because they don’t get much subsidy, so they have no choice but to keep doing the same works to sell tickets. You know Koreans know music very much, we learn to read notes from young, it’s in our school curriculum so everyone can read music and many of them attend concerts when they grow up.
Me: But won’t they get bored watching Boheme again and want something different?
Ae Ree: Maybe, but it all comes down to which operas can sell the most tickets, and not many companies can take the risk if they don’t make enough money.
The Mad Scene: I had the impression that you would be directing the opera, must have read the wrong thing. What role do you play in the company exactly?
Ae Ree: Well I’m not a director, since that is not my training and this job requires a lot of professional expertise, so it’s better if we engage a professional director to do it. I am the ARTISTIC director, in that I help to make the decisions, guide and advice the singers, and do lots of production duties like finding sponsors and making sure things happen.
In fact New Opera Singapore has recently been awarded with IPC status, which stands for Institute of Public Character. What this means is that our donors can receive 250% off tax exemptions. It took us a lot of time and paperwork for this to get approved, but we eventually we did it. It probably helped that Mrs Goh Chok Tong is our patron, she came to our first Opera Comique show and really liked what we did, so she agreed to help us.
The Mad Scene: and finding an orchestra?
Ae-Ree: Yes that is part of my job as well, but it helps that my husband is in the SSO, so he can help me with contacts. We will probably form a chamber orchestra, with professional musicians taking the lead, so it will be a clean, neat sound that will not drown out the singers.
The Mad Scene: This all sounds so incredibly exciting. Lastly, tell us why all our readers have to attend Opera Comique in the Classroom?
Ae-Ree: Firstly, you will really enjoy it, you will love it. Also you will see that opera is not really just for the older people, but also for young people. Our story is very young, very hip. And our director is also very young, so everyone is very young besides ME!!! That’s why our name is NEW opera; we want to be very different, that’s why you should come and see what is so new, so different about us.
The Mad Scene: I think it’s refreshing to see young singers onstage, just having fun doing something that is supposed to be boring. It will also be good to see young audiences having fun at what is supposed to be something only for old people. Hopefully people will realize that this is something that everyone will get and can be a big part of our lives.
Ae-Ree: Well opera is never a boring thing for me, and I’m sure it’s never a boring thing for you, but there are a lot of people out there who do think so which is why I want to make our shows more accessible for them. That’s why we want to do something lighthearted so everyone can enjoy them, with no preparation needed. Just come and see what’s happening!
The Mad Scene: Thank you Ae-Ree for your time and interest.
Ae-Ree: Thank you!