Preview/interview with Martin Ng – artistic director of The Arts Place for Donizetti’s Don Pasquale
by Aileen Tang
Imagine Donizetti’s Don Pasquale told in a mix of English and Singlish, and featuring characters that Singaporean audiences could very well see themselves in! The Arts Place presents a localised version of the Italian opera this month and I talked to Artistic Director Martin Ng about the vision behind this concept and whether Singapore audiences are ready for opera.
The Flying Inkpot: There has been a lot of attention on opera in Singapore lately. Where do you see The Arts Place fitting into this current landscape? How does it fill a gap or need, and how does it stand out among the other opera companies?
Martin Ng: Firstly, The Arts Place is not an opera company. We prefer to hold ourselves out as a vocal arts performing company and in our next season we hope to introduce alongside our opera production and annual gala concert, an oratorio series and recital series. The classical vocal repertoire is so vast that I really believe that there is always something a new company can offer.
TFI: Do you think Singapore audiences are ready for opera, often regarded as the pinnacle of Western classical music? What is the place of opera in the Singapore arts scene?
MN: I think if Singapore audiences are as ready for opera as they are ready for Hollywood blockbusters like La La Land or The Greatest Showman. The formula is simple: great music, great story, fabulous and/or great-looking performers and special effects. The Italians figured that out 500 hundred years ago and musical drama today really is a development and innovation from those concepts. The only thing that sets opera from these blockbusters is that we are dealing with the somewhat highbrow and esoteric genre of “Western classical music”. But arguably after many years of being a first-world country and as tastes of audiences are becoming more and more sophisticated, Singapore is indeed ready for opera to be inserted into its routine arts events itinerary.
TFI: In your opinion, what is the greatest challenge in reaching new audiences for opera?
MN: For me, inculcating appreciation of a certain art form beyond the impressionable years of the average human being is an immensely uphill task. I have received umpteen refusals by friends to come watch my operas with the blanket “I don’t appreciate opera”, and I can’t really blame them because I feel that we just do not have sufficient exposure of opera as an art form in the education system. I happened to be the odd teenager who was awestruck by the powerful effect of classical music that made me want to be a classical music practitioner, but it would be totally dangerous to rely on opera reaching out to new audiences on these random instances. I believe that the nurturing of new audiences should start from school level, not just through the Music Elective programmes in schools but also through the opera outreach programmes which some local companies like SPOT (Spot Pocket Opera Theatre) are involved in. The Arts Place also has its own outreach programme to share the appreciation of opera with certain underprivileged groups in Singapore society. We collaborate with schools and societies like Grace Orchard and Pathlight Schools, Loving Heart Multi Service Centre for the elderly, and children from broken families as well as children with mild autism, by setting aside tickets and inviting them to come watch our productions.
TFI: Tell me a little more about local scriptwriter Jasmine Teo’s commissioned rewriting of Don Pasquale. How did the idea for a “localised” version come about?
MN: There has always been an unwritten concession that comic opera can be performed in the local vernacular such that the local audience is able to better appreciate the comicality of the drama. With that in mind, I took the artistic liberty of replacing the recitatives and putting in some dialogue with a local flavor. Recitatives in the bel canto repertory are the “less” interesting bits of the opera where the music is made to mimic the inflections of the spoken language before the set musical numbers. The purpose, therefore, of replacing the recitatives are twofold: to enhance the dramatic and musical tension by removing the “duller” musical bits, and to insert through the new dialogue, Singaporean references in the opera. Without revealing too much, Jasmine Teo’s libretto relooks Don Pasquale by inserting anecdotes of current “hot topics of discussion” in Singapore, as well as better relating to a modern opera-going audience by updating the archaic and obsolete 19th century original setting to a modern Singapore context. We were in the audience for NAFA’s 80th anniversary performance of Strauss’ Die Fledermaus where the production decided not to go with the conventional English translations of the German dialogue and to commission Jasmine Teo to write a completely original English dialogue for the show. We were intrigued by how the “localization” of the dialogue worked well with the resetting of the story in modern day Singapore and we decided to commission Jasmine to write something similar for Don Pasquale.
TFI: What is your response to the opera connoisseur who considers this “localised” version to be a diluted or diminished version of Donizetti’s opera?
MN: It’s the first time this comic masterpiece is performed in Singapore. To my knowledge, it is a Southeast Asian premiere. Unless this “opera connoisseur” is prepared to buy an air ticket and fly to the next performance of Don Pasquale in Saint Petersburg at the Mariinsky Theatre in November 2019 for what will be only a mere concert version, then he really should be thanking me for bringing such wonderful music to the local operatic stage, semi-staged with a strong orchestra, fantastic conductor and very strong singers! Jokes aside, this opera connoisseur probably is not very well versed with the situation of opera music making in that era, where Donizetti composed the opera in only 11 days, and the opera is strewn with music borrowed from his previous operas. It was an era where the writing of the recitatives was “sub-contracted” to other minor composers in order to meet pressing deadlines from the numerous commissions by opera houses for new works. Also, if Don Pasquale were to be re-adapted for the Opera Comique stage in Paris as were some of Donizetti’s other operas (eg. La fille du regiment), he would have had to scrap all the Italian recitative in favour of French spoken dialogue.
Still intrigued, I popped by for a staging rehearsal to see for myself what this production of Don Pasquale promises to be. I watched a little of the end of Act One and immediately felt enthralled enough to want to watch the entire opera in full. The vocal prowess and comic flair of Teng Xiang Ting and Alvin Tan as Norina and Dr Malatesta respectively quashed any doubts that this production would contain anything less than performances of the highest quality (a common – though perhaps unfair – association with the term “localised”). Teng in particular is a sparkling, coquettish Norina. Equally entertaining to watch was Director Tang Xinxin putting the actors through their places, immersing herself also into the refreshing reimagining of a 200-year-old story. I spotted a handphone and heard references to Crazy Rich Asians and wanton mee – all examples of situating the tale in our modern, cosmopolitan city. The characters spoke like my friends and colleagues would: it was familiar and not in the least way offensive – no forced Singlish there!
Having put my cynicism to rest, I had one last question for Martin Ng: What does he hope the audience will come away from the performance saying?
His reply was simple: That the Art Place’s staging of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale made its mark in Singapore’s operatic history.
The Art Place’s Don Pasquale plays from 19-20 Oct (Sat-Sun) at the Victoria Concert Hall. Tickets from $32 available from Sistic.