Tuesday, 2 September, 2014

Published January 24, 2014
Titans of theatre 2014
Last year, arts lovers were dazzled by the Three Titans of Theatre, a series of plays by world-class directors. This year, there are no plans for a similar series. But there are certainly three fine and ambitious productions that deserve your attention. From Stan Lai and Ong Keng Sen to Glen Goei and Chay Yew, HELMI YUSOF names the worthy successors to the Titan series
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'Coming after the global financial crisis, the story also reflects on moral corruption, the failure of humanity, and how the world of art and science have sometimes placed profits above its moral and ethical concerns.'
- Singapore International Festival of Arts head Ong Keng Sen (above) on the pop science opera Facing Goya. He is directing the opera which is written by British composer Michael Nyman.- FILE PHOTO

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Provocative opera on cloning Goya

Facing Goya

FRANCISCO Goya, one of the greatest painters of all time, is the figure around which the modern opera Facing Goya revolves. But the opera is not about the life and times of the artist, who died in 1828. Instead, it portrays attempts by scientists to use his skull for social engineering and ultimately create a clone of him, so that the world may enjoy new works of art.

Facing Goya is filled with provocative ideas about art, science and ethics. In many ways, it is as far from Puccini's Madame Butterfly and Verdi's La Traviata as you can get. But the men behind it - British composer Michael Nyman and Singapore director Ong Keng Sen - are not interested in creating traditional opera.

Ong is the envelope-pushing pioneer of intercultural theatre. He's known to merge and transform various Asian artistic traditions in theatrical productions such as Lear and Desdemona - to both acclaim and criticism. Meanwhile, Nyman is a renowned minimalist composer most famous for the haunting soundtrack of The Piano and Gattaca, though his opera Facing Goya wasn't unanimously well-received when it premiered in 2000.

Parsing eugenics debate

Together with librettist Victoria Hardie, they will premiere in August the newly revised version of Facing Goya at the Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa) opening night. Indeed, this will be opera as it is seldom seen in Singapore - one that parses the debate on eugenics, while at the same time re-examines the basic assumptions of opera's dramatic structure and the role of music in it.

Ong, who is also Sifa's festival director, thinks a discussion on eugenics is timely. He says: "Singapore invests a lot of money in the biotechnology industry. But I personally find that there is not enough information about the industry and how taxpayers' money is being used to fund it. Biotechnology is supposed to be leading the economy, but the ethics of it is rarely discussed in public."  

The springboard for the opera's narrative is the famous fact that Goya's skull was found missing from his body when the Spanish government disinterred it in 1901.

Facing Goya proceeds to tell a fictitious story in three parts, beginning some time in the 19th century with a woman's discovery of the artist's skull. The story then fast-forwards to the 1930s where Hitler's Nazis are using social engineering to impose their theories of racial superiority. The narrative finally moves to the present where the scientific possibility of cloning the artist has various interested parties fighting tooth and nail over the skull.

Ong says: "Coming after the global financial crisis, the story also reflects on moral corruption, the failure of humanity, and how the world of art and science have sometimes placed profits above its moral and ethical concerns."

Ong is putting the revised work through his intercultural prism, with a multiracial cast comprising Caucasian, Asian and African-American singers. When Facing Goya premiered in Spain 14 years ago, the cast comprised only Caucasian singers. He explains: "The casting is appropriate because the play also explores racial discrimination and race theories that posit certain genes are stronger than others."

Pop science opera

Meanwhile, replying from London to The Business Times' email questions, Nyman says he's still surprised that he's composed a pop science opera. He jokes: "I showed absolutely no interest in biological or other sciences at school...

"But I was basically drawn into popular science, at the age of 52, by Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, which is a compilation of the neurologist's case studies. I took the first case study in the book as the subject of my first opera, also titled The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.

"But while I was writing that opera, in the summer of 1987, I met the father of the architect Richard Rogers. He was a doctor who was interested in the subject of the opera. He then told me about a book he had recently read titled The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould, which became the basis of my next opera Vital Statistics, from which Victoria and I developed Facing Goya over a period of around 10 years.

"Sacks and Gould led to a lot of study for both Victoria and me on eugenics, cloning, race, gene manipulation and many other topics that spin around in Facing Goya. And they have continued to interest me in the years since the opera was written."

Nyman, who's been nominated three times for Best Original Score at the Golden Globes but never won, says he is currently working on creating a series of 19 symphonies. Eight or more have been completed and will be performed and recorded later in the year to mark his turning 70 on March 23.

Nyman is also working with Hardie and Ong to reshape Facing Goya to give it more emotional potency. Addressing criticism that the first version was too text-heavy, Ong says: "One of the things I try to do with the new version is to find the emotional sweep of the opera. I want to focus on the moral dilemma of the protagonist, who is torn between the lure of profit and the creative soul of Goya, whom she personally loves. The new Goya will have a more emotional interpretation compared to the first version."

Facing Goya will have its Asian premiere at the Singapore International Festival of Arts on Aug 12 at 8pm at Victoria Theatre. It will also play on Aug 14 and 16. Tickets are not yet on sale and prices will be finalised later

Singapore's finest actresses in one 'House'

The House of Bernarda Alba

CATFIGHT! Catfight! Watch three generations of Singapore actresses howl and tear at each other in Wild Rice's production of The House of Bernarda Alba, the classic drama by legendary Spanish playwright and poet Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936).

Helmed by Glen Goei, the production relocates the story of the domineering matriarch and her daughters from a rural Spanish village to a Singapore Peranakan household.

The huge all-women cast of 50 - yes, 50 - is a veritable dream team: Claire Wong, Neo Swee Lin, Jo Kukathas, Serene Chen, Noorlinah Mohamed and Karen Tan are among the headliners.

But the one name that's gotten theatre-lovers dizzy with excitement is Margaret Chan. The veteran actress returns to top-tier theatre after a long absence. Goei jokes: "She's come out of the woodwork, make way for her."

Chan, 64, ruled the stage from the 1970s and 1980s with her commanding performances, most notably as the matriarch in Emily of Emerald Hill. She made rare appearances in the new millennium and now teaches drama full-time at the Singapore Management University.

Says Goei: "We've assembled three generations of the best Singapore actresses - from legends like Margaret, right up to bright young stars like Glory Ngim and Sharda Harrison. On stage, they'll be fighting and scratching each other's eyes out - how could you miss that?"

The House of Bernarda Alba tells the story of beautiful matriarch Bernarda (played by Wong) who is grieving the death of her husband. Perhaps scared of her own loneliness, she orders that her five daughters be locked up in the house for eight years, forbidding them from going anywhere except to church.

The daughters' emotional and sexual frustrations mount and simmer - until the arrival of a male suitor for one of the daughters rips the family apart.

Control, oppression and freedom are themes central to the drama - Lorca's last and finest work before he was gunned down in 1936 by the Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War. Some critics see the play as a harbinger of General Franco's military rule that started three years after Lorca's death.

Though many translations of the play abound, the text that Goei is using is by Chay Yew - another beloved name among theatre fans. Yew is a Singapore-born playwright who left the country more than 20 years ago and became an acclaimed theatre practitioner in the US. In 1989, his play As If He Hears was banned by the Singapore government because of its sympathetic portrayal of a gay man.

After winning acclaim in the West for works such as Porcelain and A Language of Their Own, Yew staged The House of Bernada Alba in New York in 2000 and again in 2007. It drew rave reviews, with The New York Times calling it "a visual and aural knockout".

Goei says he chose Yew's translation over five other versions because of its "lyricism and economy" - hallmarks of Yew's style. Replying from New York to The Business Times vie e-mail, Yew admits: "There's definitely a correlation (between the themes of the play and the socio-political situation in Singapore)."

But he chose not to expand on this point, saying that the play's message is "for Singapore audiences to discern themselves. 

"Isn't that the function of art? How do we read and interpret metaphors and find meaning? How we see our real lives reflected in the plays and what we need to do to address change?"

Though half a world away, Yew says he still thinks a lot about the country he was born in. He says: "I'm busy directing in the US. But I hope to return home soon. Many of the stories in my head still revolve around Singapore."

Wild Rice's The House of Bernarda Alba will be staged at the Drama Centre from March 12 to 29 at 8pm, as well as 3pm on weekends. Tickets from $40 to $75 at Sistic

Spectacular 7 ½-hour play by Taiwanese maestro

A Dream Like a Dream

NEXT month, the Esplanade Theatre will look like nothing you've seen before. The opera house-style theatre will be transformed temporarily into a 360-degree, two-storey stage.

Because of this reconfiguration, its usual seating capacity is cut by half. However, some of the audiences will have a once-in-a-lifetime experience of being seated in the centre of the action, watching a play unfold all around them, sometimes simultaneously on different parts of the stage.  

The tale to be told is A Dream Like A Dream, a 7½-hour Mandarin drama featuring more than 100 characters, 400 costumes, and four times the number of technical crew that a large theatrical production typically demands.

The man behind this grand operatic vision is maestro Stan Lai, possibly Taiwan's most famous theatre director.

Lai insists - insists - that he doesn't have egomaniacal tendencies: "If you look at my other plays, they are no more than three hours long. This play I'm staging is 7½-hours because the story simply demands it.

"If you must know, the script was originally 12-hours long. I cut it down until I felt I could not cut anything else without losing essential aspects of the story."

Because of its mind-boggling logistics, A Dream Like A Dream is rarely staged. Since it premiered in 2002 in Hong Kong and Taiwan to ecstatic ovations and rapturous reviews, it has had only two other production runs.

Lai says frankly: "It's a suicidal project, a logistical nightmare for any producer. When I tried to bring it to China, for instance, people didn't understand that I needed a week to build the special stage. They expected me to fly in and perform that very night.

"That's why I rarely get to stage it, and that's why you should see this show now. Because it took eight years to revive the show - if you miss this one, you might have to wait eight 8 more years."

The story is epic and extraordinary. It weaves several narratives together, criss-crossing eras, countries and characters, to show how one act carried out in a particular time has ripples of consequences decades later. A doctor, a dying patient, a lonely waitress, a beautiful prostitute and a French diplomat, among others, find their lives inextricably linked through fate and tragedy.

"It's about karma, and how people's lives and decisions have consequences," explains Lai. But there are also themes of exile, immigration, home, and the search for a national and cultural identity.

Lai says the inspiration for the story came to him in 1999 when he was in India, meditating in front of the Bodhi tree where Buddha was believed to have found enlightenment. In a white-hot bout of inspiration, the entire story came to him and he scrambled to write down its main plot points.

It took him many months afterwards to work out the dialogue and details of the story, and many more to bring the production to life. The play's scale and ambitions remain unmatched in the history of post-war Chinese theatre.

Asked if the cast and crew had to be paid more than their usual fees, Lai exclaims: "Of course! They are paid double their usual fees. But they're already giving me a big discount - because it's actually three or four plays rolled into one!"

A Dream Like A Dream runs from Feb 6 to 9 at 1.30pm at the Esplanade Theatre. The play is 7½-hours long with three intermissions, including a dinner break. Tickets from $48 to $188 are available from Sistic