Die Walküre – An Interview with Christopher Cheong, Orchestra of the Music Makers

5 Jan 2020 will see the Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM) perform the Singapore premiere of Wagner’s epic Die Walküre at the Esplanade. Aileen Tang talks to Christopher Cheong, Chairman of OMM’s Artistic Development Committee to find out when the ‘outlandish thought’ of premiering Walküre first came to light and what makes them think they can pull it off.

The Flying Inkpot: When did the idea for Die Walküre first come about? Who first thought of it?

Christopher Cheong: Quite a lot had to do with timing and where OMM was in our development and growth. 

In 2016, the Richard Wagner Association (Singapore) had produced the first full-length Wagner opera, The Flying Dutchman, in Singapore. The following year (2017), OMM co-produced with Esplanade its first semi-staged full opera, Hansel and Gretel. Some of our musicians remarked that Hansel, written by Engelbert Humperdinck (Wagner’s student), bore remarkable similarities to Wagner’s Ring operas. The orchestra wasn’t unfamiliar with Wagner – in fact, we had already performed excerpts from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung back in 2013 for our fifth anniversary concert.

About that time, there was growing awareness that the Orchestra was reaching its 10th anniversary in 2018, and there were significant internal discussions about what we should do after that. By this point, of course, the OMM management team was already at ease with organising performances of large scale symphonic and choral works.

All these led to the somewhat outlandish thought  – “What if we did The Ring?”

It made us pause and think.

TFI: How did it gain traction after that?

CC: The Artistic Committee started to consider the idea seriously around March 2017. We took several months to study the full scores of the entire cycle, and – led by its more youthful (and braver perhaps) members – came to the unanimous decision to recommend this course of action to the Main Committee. It was then presented to the rest of the OMM Management team on 27 Jan 2018, as a project to be considered post-OMM10.

Christopher Cheong

TFI: A massively aspirational endeavor for any orchestra! What were their first reactions?

CC: I recall most of the reactions to be like, “Hmmm…. That’s an interesting thought”!

I suspect this was because the thought had never occurred to anyone. This is in contrast to the ‘seed’ to perform Mahler’s 8th Symphony being planted in the wake of our 2010 performance of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony – so there was always such a ‘goal’ for that, so to speak, even if the original seed was half-jokingly planted!

It must be noted though that OMM had performed Wagner’s works as early as in 2009 (Prelude to Act 3 of Lohengrin) and 2013 – so it was not a ‘new’ musical area per se to explore.

Nonetheless, The Ring was perhaps one of the artistic decisions which took the longest time to come to, with a record high degree of caution exercised. The idea was to utilise this to galvanise and provide a focal point for the Orchestra, and uplift the entire organisation’s capabilities to a higher level. While financial requirements would certainly be significant, we anticipated that there will not only be a multiplier effect on the Orchestra’s production and management capabilities, art-making activities and standing, but also one on Singapore’s arts and culture ecosystem. With this mission in mind, the Management team unanimously voted to embark on this project.

Prof Chan Tze Law (Music Director of OMM) was recorded at the meeting on 27 Jan 2018 as saying that if we were to do it, “we would need to think of how to innovate, for volunteer musicians to pull this off, as the Ring is almost always a professional endeavour.” It was also seen by the Management as a possible “opportunity to bridge the gap between the music and opera scene – which [then seemed] to have mutual exclusivity”. It was agreed that for OMM, “pulling off a project such as this would allow us to widen our collaborations with international artists, and also boost the local arts scene.”

TFI: Why Walküre, why Singapore, and why now?

CC: One of the major decisions we had to make was whether to start with Das Rheingold or Die Walküre. While Das Rheingold is the proper starting point for the cycle chronologically, we felt that the relative emotional immediacy of Walküre would provide an easier entry point to the Cycle for both audience members and our musicians. We do have a precedent in this regard – Herbert von Karajan inaugurated the Salzburg Easter Festival with Walküre back in 1967, then staged Das Rheingold (and restaged Walküre) in 1968.

Now – because 2020 is the 150th year of Walküre’s premiere. That realisation was the tipping point in the debate and we have not looked back.

As for why Singapore, The Ring Cycle is possibly one of the last major works of art which has not been performed in Singapore. We informally enquired with most of the other musical groups which could have possibly performed the Ring, and they told us they had no such plans to perform it; so we will.

 TFI: Ultimately, what makes OMM think they can pull this off?

Our ventures dealing with large scale orchestral works, mostly with chorus – Mahler’s 2nd, Mahler’s 8th, Elgar’s The Music Makers, Beethoven’s 9th – coupled with semi-staged performances of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel and Bernstein’s Mass have built a pool of experience with regard to producing and executing such ambitious projects within the OMM Management. Since its premiere, generations have been pushing technological boundaries and testing the limits of human ingenuity to try and conquer the Ring. Whether in performance, staging, or recording. It is very humbling to have this opportunity to tread in the footsteps of giants who have come before us. So, fingers crossed! 

Die Walküre plays on 5 Jan 2020 at the Esplanade Concert Hall.
Tickets available at https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/walkure0120

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