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Jeong Ae Ree
IT MAY BE A MERE COINCIDENCE that Jeong Ae Ree's given name sounds a lot like "aria", a musical term long associated with opera singers and beautiful melodies - but it also happens to be a perfect fit. She has, after all, spent her entire life in the classical music sphere, singing and studying, teaching and performing, and making her mark as an innovator in a field typically governed by tradition. As founder and artistic director of New Opera Singapore (NOS), Ms Jeong, 49, has made it her mission to showcase local singers and expose audiences to opera experiences that go beyond Nessun Dorma.
A full scholarship brought Ms Jeong, a gifted coloratura soprano, who was born and raised in Taegu in South Korea, to the University of Music and Performing Arts in Graz, Austria in the mid-1990s. There, she met and fell in love with fellow graduate student Chan Wei Shing, a Singaporean cellist who plays with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and who also doubles as music director of NOS. Since moving here in 1997, Ms Jeong has given numerous recitals and appeared in various operas, garnering an appreciative following as well as plaudits from reviewers. Her petite size belies a powerful voice, dynamic personality and strong stage presence.
She founded New Opera Singapore in 2011 in order to entertain and educate people in the operatic arts while also providing homegrown talents an opportunity to shine in front of local audiences. The company is the recipient of a National Arts Council grant and puts on three to four shows a year. While other companies might opt to play it safe with a slate of popular operas, Ms Jeong prefers to stray from the mainstream with reinterpretations of works by 20th-century composers like Benjamin Britten and Francis Poulenc. A night at the opera remains a distinctly niche activity here, but Ms Jeong still dreams of the day when Singapore has its own opera house. "A theatre with about 800 seats with a stage that is friendly to singers so we don't have to strain our voice - that would be lovely," she says.
How did New Opera Singapore come about?
It just happened. I had been singing and teaching in Singapore for a long time and I had a number of students who had been doing well professionally. Some of my students had won first prize in prestigious competitions but when they came back here they didn't have many opportunities to perform, doing more teaching than singing. It's important to pass down their skills and have a platform to perform. Very often people have the impression that local singers are not good enough - I wanted to prove them wrong. My students had seen me producing shows on a smaller scale, and we discussed the idea over dinner and wine. I had help, of course. Mrs Goh Chok Tong - she was my voice student - agreed to be the patron of our company.
NOS has a reputation for being quirky and edgier than other opera companies in Singapore.
There are about six or seven opera companies here but the work the others do is very different. We are unique because our works are mainly Singapore premieres (performed here for the first time) and the way we present is typically a reinterpretation. For example, when we did Die Fledermaus in 2014, we included a new libretto with an Asian character singing in English. The music remains the same but the staging is given a new look. It's also more cost effective. Opera is a total art form, it's not just music. I like to have a simplified style with a focus on singers and acting ability. It's nice to see a beautiful stage but sometimes it can be a distraction. Our works are sometimes provocative, but why not? It's about expression, provoking thought.
How do you select the programme and who's your target audience?
In Singapore, people are not very exposed - it's always the same operas, but there are so many more out there. We work hard and our shows are very well received. Audiences here are new to opera, they are younger and very conservative. We build the programme around the singers - I see them first, then choose the piece. Certain operas are not suitable for young singers. There are so many promising singers here so I try to promote them. Their voices are mostly in the higher vocal range, so I often invite lower voices to come to Singapore. There's no shortage of talent and the majority do quite well performing and teaching - if you are good, there's always a way to survive.
You are a well-known opera advocate and "voice" for singers in Singapore. Do you perform much anymore?
When I first came here in 1997 my repertoire was pretty new, very different - but I don't really want to sing much now. I never sing in my productions, although the exception was in Dialogues of the Carmelites last month, when a choir member backed out so I filled in. When I sing, it becomes all about me and when I started New Opera, I didn't want it to be about me. I want to move to directing more, explore the stage management side. I want to embrace this new stage of my life.
When you did perform, you were praised by reviewers for your charisma and "flexibility of tone". Are you your own worst critic?
As a singer I don't think I was a big name or anything. I did what I could and I knew what I was doing; I made it new in a certain way. I'm not commercial, but I'm aware and confident of what I do. After a concert, I would be sick for days thinking about it. There is no such thing as perfection, but I tried. Sometimes I felt I did something right, but it doesn't come often. I am very critical of myself - there are always things to improve. Critics said I evoked a floating sound. On stage people forget how small I am. When I walk out the whole audience is looking at me and I hold them in my hand. When I sing, I pull them into my world - that's my power.
How has the opera scene here evolved in the past 20 years?
It's a huge difference. When I came to Singapore I knew of only one opera company, now there are several. There are more opportunities to watch many concerts. I wouldn't say all are good, but some are promising. People are afraid of opera, which is very sad. Without knowing, they think opera is boring - but it's for everybody, it was the pop music of that age. Why should it only be for elitists? The prejudice is hard to break. Surely there is talent, but there is not enough support. A good singer is not just talent, it's the supporters and you have to keep on promoting. Through performances, they get better. World class singers are made, not born. If you go to a music school, everybody is talented - from there it's about hard work and support.
Did you ever act like a diva?
I think I'm reasonable. My husband told me, singers are like birds: if they are not happy they can't sing well. I was demanding and too picky about what I should sing. I resisted certain things and missed out on some opportunities but when I think about it, that's me - it's my character.