FENCES by John Sharpley and Robert Yeo / Opera Viva / Review


FENCES
Opera Viva
Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts
Sunday (19 August 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 21 August 2012 with the title "Home-grown opera breaks through barriers".

Only the second opera to come out of Singapore, John Sharpley’s Fences with libretto by Robert Yeo finally came to fruition after an eight year gestation. Opera Viva, Singapore’s second opera company, was specifically created to produce this opera about inter-racial love set in the turbulent 1960s of Singapore and Malaysia. The premise of the story was the brainchild of local opera connoisseur Leow Siak Fah, who himself played a major part in Singapore’s first opera, Leong Yoon Pin and Edwin Thumboo’s Bunga Mawar of 1997.

1961: Nora Ibrahim meets Steven Lee in Malaya Hall, London

There are similarities between the two operas, chiefly a Romeo And Juliet-like love story involving members of families from different stations. While both protagonists of Bunga Mawar were Chinese, Fences sets up further barriers between Steven Lee and Nora Ibrahim, namely race, religion and nationality. Could true love overcome bigotry, chauvinism and politics?

The music by John Sharpley, a Texan who has lived in Singapore for half his life, was gratifyingly tonal. He did not quote or write Asian melodies, but neither could he completely escape from influences by Copland, Bernstein and Britten, which permeated his lyrical outpourings. The orchestration was sumptuous, sparing no details when he tried to simulate an Asian aesthete – scoring erhu, yangqin and dizi for Lee family scenes, with marimba and assorted percussion in the corresponding Malay episodes. 

The final duet at Tanjong Pagar Station: A hotel is not a home, so where do we go from here? 

The singers were expertly cast, veteran tenor David Quah and newcomer soprano Akiko Otao clicked surprisingly well. Their acting and body language were totally believable, supported by short but angst-ridden arias What is this Stink called Home? and What Coming Home Means respectively, loaded with powerfully charged words. Behind them, Nomer Son and Satsuki Nagatome (as the Ibrahims), Rueben Lai and Anna Ivanenko (the Lees) were convincing in the portrayals of paternal intransigence and maternal sympathy. 

The Geylang Serai riots: Steven gets battered and bruised.

The well-honed chorus played a larger role than expected, its appearance inevitably fanning the flames of the heated sentiments of the moment. Where but in the context of this opera can the inflammatory phrases “kurang hajar” (debased person) or “Crush Lee Kuan Yew!” escape the censor’s scissors? The appearance of the first PM, clad in all white, also had the revisionist about it. His broadcast speech of 9 August 1965 was not clothed in regretful tears, but one of indignation and defiance.

9 August 1965: Singapore is booted out; LKY standing tall, is defiant rather than  tearful.

Malay vs Chinese. Islam vs Buddhism. Malaysia vs Singapore. Never the twain shall meet.

Chandran Lingam’s direction was clear-headed and effective. The two stages on which the sung dialogues of the families took place were representative of the gulfs which people and their societies impose on themselves. Never the twain shall meet; these were the metaphorical fences erected (hence the opera’s title) and stoutly defended to the death.

The sextet of confrontation.

The one major regret of this production was the lack of surtitles. With the orchestra superbly directed by Darrell Ang placed just in front of the stage, the sung English of the amplified singers was often rendered indecipherable and sometimes drowned out. A printed libretto was provided on the second evening, but the small print and dim lighting nullified the thoughtful gesture.

Steven and Nora plan a new life together... in Australia!

Despite the technical difficulties encountered, Fences, a lesson on conflict, confrontation and ultimately compromise, is something societies that genuinely seek tolerance and forbearance can learn from. Musically and artistically, it represents a significant advance on the earlier efforts of Bunga Mawar. Let us hopefully not wait another 15 years for the next major Singaporean opera.

Akiko Otao as Nora and David Quah as Steven.
Darrell Ang, John Sharpley and Robert Yeo get their accolades.