Thursday, November 8, 2012

Interview with Sabrina Zuber


The popular Bellepoque series return for a fifth installment from 28 November to 1 December 2012. It is a murder mystery set on the famous Orient Express train route which runs from Paris to Istanbul (Wikipedia page here). We speak to producer-cum-performer Sabrina Zuber to find out more about what to expect in this new production:




The Mad Scene: So this is the 4th edition of the Bellepoque series. Was it a surprise to you that the series had so much success?

Sabrina Zuber: Somehow a surprise...yes. Maybe, more a dream I had! I tried to bring operetta to Singapore and the surprise was to see how many people have enjoyed it.

The Mad Scene: that's true, one would never imagine that operetta songs would be popular here.

Sabrina Zuber: Yes, that was my thought. But on the other hand, the audience here seems to appreciate vocal music and I know that this is a 'singing nation' if you consider the number of choirs, vocal ensembles and genres of vocal music in the scene

The Mad Scene: Why pick the Orient Express as the setting for this new production?

Sabrina Zuber: This production puts together two of my dreams: one was to perform Offenbach, as he is really one of the fathers of the genre; on the other hand I have always wanted to deal with a mystery murder story. I was used to read Agatha Christie when I was a child.There is a good potential of humour and intrigue in Christie's stories, ideal for an operetta!

The Mad Scene: The famous route picks up all manner of exotic passengers, from Paris to Germany to Istanbul. Did that contribute to its attraction?

Sabrina Zuber: It gave me the possibility to cast performers with different background and from different cultures. it's certainly an 'exotic' cast!

The Mad Scene: Your mix of operetta songs chained up with a comedic storyline and exotic historical settings has obviously struck a chord with audiences. What was some of the most enthusiastic feedback you have received?

Sabrina Zuber: Somebody told me that he did not see the time passing by, a 90 minute show went by as if it was just one minute. He also added that he was quite skeptical and did not want to come, as he thought he would fall asleep.

Also, a French lady told me she was so happy to listen to some arias from Offenbach’s La Perichole...she had to bring her daughters to watch the show! They had to listen to this.

The Mad Scene: So now that this is the fourth time, what lessons have you and your team learnt previously that has been put to use this time round? How are things improved?

Sabrina Zuber: I have made efforts to improve the production internally: music director, vocal coach, costumes, stage management… these are positions which have been made steadier. As this is my 5th production, I have learnt certain things which become more routine. We optimize our time, for rehearsals and production planning. I have tried to keep those good points from past experiences and improve or change those that were not so good.


The Mad Scene: I do notice quite a difference in casting. You’ve got quite a broad mix of talents this time round, including a violinist (Sean Huan-Yuh), theatre actors (Tim Garner, Jonathan Lum) and a professional opera singer (Melvin Tan). Does this bring a different dynamic to the production? In what way is it different this time round?

Sabrina Zuber: Actually for the casting I had to change it not because of quality, but because of storyline.

The Mad Scene: For me it seemed like a different direction, probably to do different things artistically.

Sabrina Zuber: I also find it interesting to try and work with new colleagues, from time to time.I needed an actor, Tim will not be singing at all. I needed to counterbalance the artists with musical theatre background (Kristy and Tom and Jonathan) with a stronger lyrical voice (Melvin).

As for the violinist, it is hopefully just the beginning of something I'd like to develop: have an ensemble and not only a piano. It adds tremendously from a musical point-of-view.

If you mix artists which different background it can add to the overall result as each will bring his/her contribution to the show. It has been the case with last year’s production.

Dr Casteels takes care of the music direction; he will make the magic to blend all together.

The Mad Scene: Tell us about the process of putting together a Bellepoque show: what comes first, the songs or storyline?

Sabrina Zuber: The very first show in 2009, titled Bellepoque when the company did not exist yet (I produced it under my agency Arsmedia), began with a score I had found in a library when in Paris as a tourist. I loved it and bought it. Then I searched for more and discovered a whole repertoire. I came back after the summer vacation in Europe with a luggage full of scores, and we created a storyline around it.

For the last show in 2011 and for this one, we have first decided we wanted to go to the East (Shanghai, last year) or have a mystery murder story (this year). We drafted a very short plot. Then I have researched for fitting songs. Once the repertoire has been confirmed, Nicole Stinton wrote the definitive version of the script.

Similarly, sometimes we audition for a cast; sometimes once we have a first plot and a first repertoire selection, who is singing what becomes clear by itself, no need of further audition. Nicole writes for each of us.

In 2011 we auditioned for Shanghai show. We were looking for a lyrical soprano and we auditioned Alison Lester. Hers was not the voice we were looking for at first. But during the audition we actually 'saw' her character, that of the evil lady a bit like Cruella Demon, and our choice was done.

The Mad Scene: How long does this initial process of writing and song-selection take?

Sabrina Zuber: a few months, I would say. It takes me a whole year from the moment I decide on dates and a title and the moment the show opens.

The Mad Scene: Any plans for dreams for Bellepoque Company to produce a full operetta production?

Sabrina Zuber: Oh yes!!! I will need much more financial support though!

I dream of produce an Offenbach one, one day. Or an Italian one (yes, they exist!) The audience may be already acquainted with The Merry Widow, so I would rather try to bring something never seen here. This is one of the company's goals: premiere unusual repertoire, select lesser-known arias. An example is the concert dedicated to F.P. Tosti, which was the launching of Bellepoque.  There is a whole world of beautiful music out there

The Mad Scene: Cool! So name the top 3 operettas that are on your wishlist?

Sabrina Zuber: La vie parisienne and Pomme d'Api by Offenbach, and Cin ci la' by Ranzato and Lombardi.

But having said that, let’s not forget that Bellepoque is also a cabaret. My most secret dream is to produce something like a gangster story, set in the Roaring Twenties and go Charleston!!!


The Mad Scene: So back to this current show: What’s your role in this new production? And what songs will your character be singing?

Sabrina Zuber: I am a mysterious lady, the dead's man wife. Very suspicious. I am rich and flirtatious (this seems to be my lot in theatre!), and I do have a secret from my past...

Songs wise, the most challenging is definitely the doll song from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman. Wish me luck!

The Mad Scene: wow that's a tough one. Good luck!

Sabrina Zuber: it is. But I’ve wanted to try this one for such a long time. As you can see, Bellepoque is all about dreams...

The Mad Scene: including fulfilling musical dreams I see. So, last question: tell us why we should all come and watch Bellepoque: Murder in the Orient Express?

Sabrina Zuber: I may not be very objective! It is a really complicated plot with some unexpected twists and good fun. It is a beautiful repertoire, really...mostly Offenbach and in any case all French, as our train is stuck in Paris.

It is a challenge as we perform a whole comedy in a very limited space...so the audience can see how we transform a space with creativity and imagination.

I have a really talented cast, to start with the stage director and the music director, with the performing artists, the costume maker, the stage management crew. We have put all our efforts and hearts into it, so you really have to come and check it out!

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Bellepoque: Murder in the Orient Express runs from 29 November to 1 December 2012. Check out the Events Page for details.

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