Theatre of Commitment: On the Singaporean Opera “Fences”

Full version of the review by Chetana Nagavajara 

I still recall a panel discussion broadcast on the BBC third Programme around 1960 in which musicians as well as music critics took part. Although the exact theme addressed by them has since eluded me, I do remember that at one point they were talking about opera as an artistic genre, and the remark made by the young Colin Davis (who was later knighted) is still ringing in my ears. Though a rising star, after having replaced Otto Klemperer at short notice in a concert performance of Don Giovanni and newly appointed Director of Sadler’s Wells Opera, the second (but by no means second-rate) opera house of London, he had the admirable honesty to make the following confession: “At this stage of my career, I don’t know what makes for a good operatic performance; there are so many constituent elements.” Half a century has passed, and Sir Colin has accumulated immense experience both in the symphonic and operatic repertoire, including those trying years at Covent Garden, so would he now be prepared to forgo his earlier modesty? We can never know. What I would like to emphasize here is that what I have related above in the way of a digression does bear on the performance of the opera Fences whose première on 18 August 2012 at the Nanyang Acadamy of Fine Arts (NAFA) in Singapore I did attend and derive much pleasure.

I assume those who were involved in the production of the opera Fences might have shared the young Colin Davis’s uncertainty about the possible success or failure of their common enterprise. So many factors constitute such success or failure. In other words, those who are engaged in the production of the work are not usually expected to act as their own adjudicators. They must do their best, that is all. Evaluation normally takes place at the receiving end. In the case of Fences, the singers, musicians and other collaborators could not have been sure of their success until the final note of the music had played itself out, and the reaction of the audience manifested itself. Admittedly, the audience at the première reacted with uninhibited applause. Our misgivings about contemporary music being destined for the initiated were dissipated by this very enjoyable performance. It was an experience that a music lover like myself will treasure for years to come.

It might be appropriate to describe the performance first in experiential terms – namely in terms of what we heard and what we saw. The singers were singing their hearts out, not only the lead singers, but everybody on stage, including the chorus (sometimes united, sometimes divided), which was very impressive. By sheer accident which turned out to be a stroke of luck, it was impossible to lower the orchestra into the orchestra pit, simply because it was too big for the Nanyang’s “abyss” (a term used to describe the pit of Wagner’s Festival Theatre in Bayreuth!)  From my vantage point in the third row (which normally is not ideal for listening to an orchestral or an operatic performance), I could observe how this “crash” orchestra, consisting almost entirely of young instrumentalists, was enthusing over this new score under the very lively leadership of a young conductor. I might as well indulge in a case study of sorts. I was observing one double bass player, who was not counting inwardly the notes during the intervals that the double basses did not have to play, but was visibly “conducting” the orchestra with the right hand. Luckily, the other members of the orchestra were not watching this conscientious colleague instead of the conductor! In summary, I would like to say that those we saw on stage were bound together by a sense of commitment, and I would assume that those we did not see, but who were responsible for other “constituent elements” of the opera mentioned by Sir Colin Davis must have been just as “committed” to their respective roles. Perhaps we have found the answer that Sir Colin David did not find or did not want to find: the success of Fences depended on the commitment of everybody involved. Can we hark back to the term very much in use in the mid-20th century, namely, that a good opera is an “opéra engagé”, not in the socio-political sense, but in the sense of a cohesive collegiality.

The “company” – though a “crash” company in this case – knew full well that they had to face up to the challenge proffered by the composer and the librettist. I shall address the work of the librettist first. Robert Yeo has the ambition to raise a domestic drama to mythic heights, and a contemporary writer can only achieve that by way of anchoring personal fate to larger issues of national and transnational import. In this respect, he has made a significant contribution to the development of the genre that took root in 18th century Europe, known under such concepts as “bourgeois drama” or “domestic tragedy”, whose chief protagonists were Diderot in France and Lessing in Germany. In Fences, inspired by the Romeo and Juliet theme, the librettist created his “star-crossed lovers” in the persons of a Singaporean Chinese (hero) and a Malaysian Malay (heroine). Racial and religious differences are onerous enough to bear, with their respective parents, especially their fathers, vehemently resisting their union, (a conflict most imaginatively exploited by the composer.) But Yeo goes further in transcending this personal conflict. Citizens of one and the same country after independence, they very soon lose their unified national identity as a result of Singapore’s secessation from Malaysia. The poignancy of this separation constitutes the culminating point of the drama, as personal and non-personal elements are interwoven with great artistry. The hero’s lament in Scene 9 of Act 1 goes beyond personal interests to embrace a conflict of geopolitical dimensions, so to speak. The poetic force of the libretto is matched by the emotional intensity of the music.

I remember what it was like before I left.

There was no fence in my heart, nor in my house.

But here, yes here in Singapura, Singapura, Singapura, this is happening.

Someone set the cat among the rats.

What is this stench called race?

It gives an odour to religion, erases the fragrance of prayer,

Makes a disease, makes a disgrace of this notion of home,

Traduces the idea of a nation.

What is this place called home?

This stench?


As a citizen of an ASEAN nation, when I heard this tirade, propped by very eloquent music, I was beginning to empathize with my Southern neighbours. The great thing about Robert Yeo’s text and John Sharpley’s music is that they do not deepen the wound, but on the contrary, incite us through strong emotions to find ways to heal. And this brings me to the big question as to why the librettist and the composer refuse to follow Shakespeare to a tragic ending. Is the avoidance of tragedy a logical process or a deliberate espousal of a moralistic and didactic agenda? Has the opera as a work of art suffered thereby? The librettist is quite clear about his intention. He does not desire a tragic ending. The text is quite explicit about the mothers’ sympathy for the young couple and they even go as far as trying to mollify the fathers’ adamant hostility towards the union. Is this a concession to feminism in the sense that women are less dogmatic, more conciliatory and hence more progressive than men? I find myself in a dilemma here. The happy ending is, to my mind, not unconditionally happy: the young couple decides to emigrate. At this point, the music is ambiguous (perhaps as ambiguous as the plot). It is not triumphant music: it resorts to the depiction of a seascape (which was also visible in the form of a projection on the stage.) How can emigration be triumphant? Perhaps I am being too pedantic. The audience did not seem unhappy with this not-quite-so-happy ending at all.

If the avoidance to tragedy was the wish of the two creative artists, then we must respect their stand. But the possibility of going the other way was there, especially in musical terms. A colleague of mine who is working at NAFA was particularly sensitive to the Wagnerian grandeur, especially the orchestration, of John Sharpley’s score, and I agree with him. An admirer of Wagner (as an artist) myself, I could sense an undercurrent of seriousness and austerity worthy of a Götterdämmerung, but it would be silly to wish that the socio-political dilemma of South East Asia (plus the racial and religious problems) could, artistically speaking, lead up to a “twilight of the (South East Asian) gods!” It is time to shelve the debate on tragedy versus non-tragedy.

John Sharpley has written a score that is marked by a great variety of musical styles and emotions, and the latter point definitely accounts for the success of the opera. The very first scene is full of humour, and I could not help exclaiming to myself, “Falstaff!” The words and the music enriched each other, and the audience knew right from the start that it was not going to be served with an esoteric piece, but with something they could enjoy. As the crisis mounted, the music became more serious. Sharpley could respond to the shifts and changes in the moods, ranging from joyfulness to despair. The familial conflicts between the parents and the son and daughter demand a musical mode of their own. But how to bring out the nuances between the two families – between the Muslim and the Chinese worlds? The answer was to be found in the orchestra. Distinct Malay and Chinese musical styles could be heard, sometimes underlined by the use of indigenous instruments. (The composer has been living in South East Asia for 27 years and should know us well enough, culturally at least.) The director knew how to underscore the inter-familial conflict, pitching the two families on stage at the same time. At one point the director, the librettist and the composer conspired to make us witness a tripartite dispute, with three groups of singers simultaneously on stage, namely the young couple and the hero’s and the heroine’s parents, venting their pent-up emotions and frustrations. Sharpley must have enjoyed this challenge, for the sextet he composed for Act 2, Scene 8 is contrapuntal writing of the first order. Nevertheless, there are lighter moments in the opera, and the duets of the young couple are at times so heart-rending that I again could not help saying to myself: “This is Mimi and Rodolfo!” I must repeat it for the umpteenth time; this is an enjoyable work easily accessible to a large public. It deserves to be heard more than just in the 2 performances that the organizers could afford.

The question arises as to whether an opera like Fences should be taken up by a “national” opera company, which usually stages Western operas as its staple. That Fences could be presented at all – after Yeo and Sharpley had been working on it for 8 years – was due to the admirable initiative of “Opera Viva”, a non-profit organization. One could notice that economy was exercised whenever possible. In my country, Thailand, great things have come out of “the Lean Theatre”, namely small-scale theatrical troupes that operate on a shoestring. I do not want to offer the status of an associate member of the Lean Theatre to “Opera Viva”, but I could observe that economy was not a straightjacket, but an inducement to use one’s imagination constructively. And the director, the set designer and other stage hands were very resourceful: the use of projections – instead of elaborate set – was the case in point. The scene at the historic Railway Station, for example, was positively imaginative. Yet, there were certain areas on which the company would not economize, namely music. As I said before, the orchestra of over 40 musicians was too big for the NAFA orchestra pit. Opera is musical theatre, and we must quote the French poet Verlaine to support our Singaporean friends’ endeavour (though somewhat out of context): “Music before everything…” (La musique avant toute chose…).

That was the reason why they had to invite singers from other Asian countries to fill some of the very demanding roles. It is not possible for me to name them all. Some needed technological help like amplification, but that did not detract from the beauty of their singing and their interpretative prowess. It is the lead singer who took the role of Steven Lee, namely David Quah, whom I feel obliged to single out. The power of his voice and his commanding presence could be an asset to any opera house. Another star of the evening was the chorus, which was very distinguished through and through. Robert Yeo and John Sharpley had assigned to the chorus a highly challenging task, not only in terms of singing but also of acting. All this would not have come to fruition without the able leadership of the conductor, Darell Ang, who in spite of his heavy international engagements, found time to devote himself to this Singaporean venture. I could hear and could see how he too was committed to this noble cause.

In the final analysis, I must maintain that Fences is a theatre of commitment and deserves to be known and enjoyed outside Singapore too.