On the Singaporean Opera “Fences”

Chetana Nagavajara

Just came back from Singapore last night, having attended the premiere of the opera “Fences”, with music by the American Composer, John Sharpely, (who has been living in Singapore for 27 years) and the libretto by the SEA-Write laureate, Robert Yeo, and old friend of mine. (We were working together at the SEAMEO Secretariat in Bangkok in the 1970s.) It was a stunning success; an opera that is enjoyable is a rarity these days. Robert Yeo constructs a “domestic drama” of two young, star-crossed lovers (reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet), a Chinese Singaporean and a Malay Malaysian, whose personal fate is interwoven into the political conflicts of national import, namely, the separation of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965. They have to cross many “fences”, be these nationalistic, religious, racial, etc. And the composer could find ways – emotionally and musically – to respond to the very complex main theme put forward by the librettist. The singing was first-rate, and the chorus too (to which Robert Yeo has assigned a very significant role in emphasizing the political conflicts) was very impressive. Working on a shoestring budget, the director had to think very hard on how to make less mean more, the result being a highly imaginative set, propped by very suggestive projections. They might have been prepared to economize on a number of things, but not on the orchestra, too big to be accommodated into the orchestra pit of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. So we were lucky to see and to hear how a “crash” orchestra could do so well. Of course, a very distinguished young conductor was directing it, the Singaporean Darrell Ang, now living in France and very much sought after internationally. “Music before everything” as the French poet Verlaine would have it? Yes, and more, much much more. This production has made me understand the Wagnerian concept of “total work of art” even better. But what means personally to me is that it substantiates my point about the virtue and viability of the “lean theatre”, (which in Thailand is fighting an uphill battle against the “plump theatre”). Robert Yeo and John Sharpley worked on the opera for 8 years. It is an act of artistic piety. And luckily they have been successful in persuading their colleagues to share their philosophy of life. Congratulations! (I shall write a longer account later.)