“Tell them the trivia!” Esplanade Communications Specialist Gina Koh says, grinning eagerly. Ravi groans but relents. “I can never forget the Esplanade’s anniversary date because my birthday falls on the same day – 12th October.”
Ravi Sivalingam may not be a familiar face to the public, but within the Esplanade’s walls, the Head of Operational Support services is a huge personality who’s been with them even before it opened its doors to the public in 2002. “Indians have this habit of associating everything with fate, so I guess because of my birthday, I really was ‘fated’ to work with the Esplanade,” he says.
Perhaps fate does have something to do with it. Ravi has always been involved in the arts, ever since his days as a political-science student in NUS working as a stage manager for his then peer Selena Tan. It was in January of 1997 that Ravi was brought onboard the Esplanade planning team tasked with readying the venue and figuring out all that would go into it. Since then, he’s taken on various roles, from Box Office Manager, to Head of Hospitality and Services, and now, Head of Operational Support Services. He even took on a sabbatical of a sorts in 1999, joining the team that was involved in the inaugural Singapore leg of Cirque du Soleil’s Saltimbanco tour, and later on, was temporarily borrowed in the months leading up to the opening of the new National Gallery. Ravi has also had stints as a part time lecturer over the years.
“One of the reasons I couldn’t get into a normal desk job was because it simply didn’t hold any meaning for me. For me, the arts have always been something dear and close to my heart, and I think I’d be happy with any job in the arts. As far as performing arts centres go, I honestly think the Esplanade is second to none in the region. Being able to go on this journey with the Esplanade has been a real blessing, and nowhere else would I have been able to get the opportunities I did working here.”
Having been working here for so long, Ravi has also seen the area go through some serious changes. “Imagine there used to be nothing in front of us – no MBS, no One Marina Boulevard. All of that came up in the last 15 years, and now when you look across the bay it’s completely different. It’s amazing how there are people today who were born beyond a time where the Esplanade didn’t exist, or where a thriving arts industry was not a given. Over the next 15 years, things like new MRT lines will be complete, and there’ll be even more new opportunities for new businesses and ventures to set up and continue changing the landscape.”
For Ravi, a typical day starts promptly at 7.30am, after his daily dose of Toastbox (the aunties there already know his usual order). As a nearly 24/7 operations centre, there’s plenty of new tasks and issues to be looked at daily, going over how best to tackle faults and the day’s activities during his morning meetings, handling everything from cleaning to security. It can get especially busy during weekends like this one, when the Esplanade’s upcoming Kalaa Utsavam Indian Festival of the Arts will be opening and Ravi expects to be working late into the night. From time to time, Ravi also embarks on various projects beyond operations. He says: “Earlier on in my role as director of operations, I was asked to redevelop the outdoor theatre. So the current structure you see out there, I had a hand in it. When I’m taking a walk down the waterfront and catch a glimpse of it, I realize that as long as that’s standing, it’s my contribution to the Esplanade.”
The job is not without its occupational hazards though. Says Ravi: “I can now no longer watch any show comfortably, be it at the Esplanade or some other venue. I’ll always be looking around and thinking ‘how come the door is still open’ or ‘why is the usher moving around so much?’ It’s very hard to enjoy myself, and I get all fidgety, to the extent that my friends will go ‘aiyah, don’t go out with you already lah!'”
On his favourite venue in the Esplanade, Ravi already has an answer ready: “Without a doubt, the concert hall. Years ago, during our very first da:ns festival, Australian dancer Wade Robson came to perform at the hall. Our 50-something year old programme director was so caught up in the moment, he started dancing in the aisles!”
Working in the same place for 19 years is a long time, but Ravi always finds a reason to wake up and come to work each morning. Says Ravi: “There’s a real sense of pride in working for the Esplanade. Unofficially, we’re even seen as the national performing arts centre. Back in 2010 when I was going through customs in Germany, the customs officer asked me ‘Where do you work?’ All I had to do was open up my passport and point to the picture – ‘I work here’. It’s always a source of happiness when we hear people say good things about the building, the things that we do and the shows we present.”
As for whether he’ll be working here during the Esplanade’s 30th Anniversary, Ravi answers almost immediately with a ‘no’. “I’m already 49, so in 15 years, I’ll be 64. Operations is actually a really physically demanding job, and even now, I’m starting to feel the strain. No, I’ll pass the mantle on to the next generation while I go shelve books in a library somewhere.”
“I am, however, looking forward to the new mid-sized theatre that’ll be up in 2021. The Esplanade was originally planned to be a lot larger, with an adaptable theatre, a whole suite of rehearsal spaces and more, something like Southbank in London or the Lincoln Center in New York. Hopefully in the next 15 years, this place is going to be a lot more crowded, and the Esplanade continues to serve its purpose and the community, educating and engaging and the space for Singaporeans to grow up with and come experience the arts.”
With such an illustrious career and charming personality, it’s next to impossible to imagine an Esplanade without Ravi in 15 years. For now though, he’s definitely staying on as Head of Operational Support Services in the near future, with plenty of fire in him yet to deal with more years of working at Singapore (and the region’s) premier arts centre. Don’t miss your chance to catch him in person and be introduced to all the little nooks and crannies in the Esplanade he’s come to know intimately over the years this November in his exclusive Backstage Pass With…tour.
For more exclusive inside information from Ravi, do sign up for his Backstage Pass With… tour on 25th November, tickets available here. Tours run every Saturday till 16th December, including this weekend on 18th November. All proceeds go to fundraising for the Esplanade’s upcoming waterfront theatre, and tickets are available from SISTIC