An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 28th August 2014 with the title ‘Sweet Sounds of Chamber Operas’.
New Chamber Operas
Esplanade Recital Studio
Local contemporary ensemble Chamber.Sounds had their beginnings in Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in 2005, and have been presenting a concert of local and original new music annually since 2011. In what seemed to be their most ambitious project yet, they premiered four chamber operas specially written for them in a concert yesterday, following a successful call for proposals for commissioning early last year. The same programme was also performed a day earlier on Tuesday as a preview for children and students, which this reviewer attended.
Chamber operas, as their name suggests, employ a much smaller ensemble and cast. Hence, the musicians share the stage with the singers and are sometimes involved in the action. In the final opera, Canadian composer Rita Ueda’s One Thousand White Paper Cranes for Japan, musicians were dressed in white instead of the usual black, and made to shuffle around the stage at the beginning, as though wandering souls leaving this world for the next.
A heart-warming story with a happy ending, her work was based on a real life story of a Canadian boy who began a fund-raising project for the victims of the 2011 tsunami which impacted Japan. Although teeming with newfangled compositional techniques, multimedia (lighting and video) and conceptually strong, most of it was lost in translation. Without a synopsis, explanation or a copy of the music, the audience would not be able to fully grasp the content.
Opening the concert was Australian composer Nicole Murphy’s work, The Kamikaze Mind, based on a book of the same title. The strange and highly philosophical work was made up of recovered fragments from the mind of an astronaut who launched himself into a black hole. His past comes back to find him, consisting of a He, his younger self, and a She, a former lover. Baritone Daniel Ho’s deep voice and clear enunciation was a joy to listen to, and he was complimented by the lyrical and lighter voices of tenor Jeremy Koh and Bernadeta Astari.
Also in the same vein but less strange was local composer Chen Zhangyi’s Window Shopping. This tonal and light-hearted work had a mix of elements such as neo-Baroque, Impressionism and Broadway. The narrative juxtaposed two differing attitudes of a lady who was shopping for shoes, the more contemplative and mature older version of her was contrasted alongside the younger, feistier self. Maybe because of the similar vocal ranges of both characters, it was difficult to make out their singing. Perhaps it might have worked better if one character was an alto instead of two sopranos.
Japanese composer Naomi Sekiya’s Winds of Summer Fields was the most outstanding, albeit disturbing work presented. Sekiya set four poems of Emily Dickinson to music, which have central themes of insanity, pain and death. On top of three long-haired, gothic-looking singers dressed in black and reminiscent of the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, there were three other non-singing roles which added to the drama. These took the form of three dancers, dressed in black bottoms and white tops, writhing and twisting in a sinuous and sinister form, with creepy facial expressions to boot. Of the four poems-movements, the first and third were loud and thumping, while the second and fourth were more melancholic in nature, not unlike the nostalgia and longing evoked in slow English country folk songs.
To present four operas in two hours was not an easy feat, and one can only imagine the sheer amount of work that the musicians, singers and conductor Clarence Tan have put in. So kudos to Chamber.Sounds for yet another successful concert, and in their continuing effort of promoting new local music.