A Few Words With JOHN SHARPLEY, Composer of the opera FENCES

A SHORT INTERVIEW WITH DR JOHN SHARPLEY, 
Composer of Singapore's latest opera FENCES
produced by Opera Viva Singapore

18 and 19 August 2012
Lee Foundation Theatre, 
Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts
7.30 pm


Could you remember what you were doing on 9 August 1965?

I was 9 years old then and likely on a family summer holiday in the Texas Hill Country. I can imagine myself filled with fantasy exploring some forest or river, discovering my own sense of freedom.


As all of us will already know, Fences will only be the second opera written in the grand scale in Singapore after Leong Yoon Pin’s Bunga Mawar of 1997. That’s quite a responsibility. How did you get about deciding on the musical idiom you will work with for the opera?

For me, musical idiom is a very individualised concern. It must be sincere and hence, original! Having lived, studied, worked and travelled in Singapore and Southeast Asia for the past 27 years, I believe that there are many local musical and cultural influences that are fully instinctive to me. I trusted my instinct to guide me through the composing of Fences.

Even though every new composition of mine brings a new blossoming there is a continuity in my musical language or style. This is what I would call the composer’s “voice”. Consequently the musical idiom for Fences is both steeped in my musical past and mingled with the stimulating challenges from the libretto to Fences.

The music to Fencesis what I would call extended tonality / modality. I believe that a musical idiom for opera should be rich, multi-layered and dramatic. It must be able to convey emotions, anticipation and surprise.


 Will this be a Singaporean opera or an American opera about Singapore?

This is a tricky question. To begin with I do not think of myself as an American composer. Rather, I am a composer born in America. Singapore has been my home for about one half of my life. I feel more Singaporean than American! I have also lived in France and Australia. Likewise, Fences is an opera from Singapore. Of course the story is unique to Singapore and Malaysia. Even with the Southeast Asian influences, the music is unique to me. I do not try to be anything else but myself. Does all this make Fences a Singaporean opera? I leave you the reader to decide for yourself.


You have always had a special and highly lyrical way with words set to music. How did you respond to Robert Yeo’s libretto? Was it one very amenable to musical settings? How close did you work with him to make words into musical sense?

All the music to Fences is my response to Robert’s spacious and rich libretto. Robert and I worked closely together over many years with constant dialogue. This was a wonderful process and a true collaboration. I am honoured to have worked on Fences with Robert. 


I remembered the reading of scenes from Fenceswith piano accompaniment held in 2006 at the University Cultural Centre which was very interesting and held great promise for the opera’s production. How has the music and development of the opera transformed since then?

The story, music and libretto have altered considerably since the reading in 2006. There have been subsequent performances and reading of excerpts, workshops and periods of revisions. Essentially, Robert and I have endeavored to distill the story into a taut dramatic line. Such is far from easy to accomplish. In fact, operas often continue to be revised well after their premieres.


Eight years is a rather long gestation for Fences. There must have been many struggles, ups and downs in its coming to being. Would you like to relate some of these to us?

Of course there are ups and downs! How could this be opera otherwise! In fact, I am always reminded that opera is both drama on stage and off stage.

To be truthful, I have come to the sad conclusion that Singapore is not yet ready for serious opera. Perhaps it is in the general mindset of organisers, practitioners and audiences that performing art should simply be entertaining, not cathartic and thought-provoking. This, I believe, has been the root of my greatest struggle - to exist in an artistic community that is not particularly conducive towards and producing of the highest levels of artistic exigence, expertise, support, understanding and with a generosity of spirit. Please know that there are a few who do truly possess these qualities but they are a very small minority (who also struggle). Maybe one day but not today! I will not give up!


How would you like your audience to approach, respond to and remember Fences?

My hope is that Fences be a dramatic and emotional journey culminating in a cathartic experience. There is at the heart of Fences a soulfulness. I pray that such will be conveyed and perceived and that serious opera may take a deeper root in Singapore.