Artist Spotlight: An Interview with Opera Singer Leslie Tay
Opera singer and tenor Leslie Tay has been on the local and international scene for years. Leslie has graced stages as prestigious as New York’s Carnegie Hall (with the New York Lyric Opera) in 2009, and even sang with the Boston Lyric Opera and performed with New York companies such as Dicapo Opera and Bronx Opera.
Professionally trained at the Boston Conservatory, Leslie is also fiercely supportive of the local arts scene, having performed in musicals with Singapore Repertory Theatre and premiered roles written by playwright Stella Kon for Musical Theatre Limited, as well as having sung for the Dim Sum Dollies in three of their productions, and was most recently seen performing with OperaViva in OperaMIXER – The Italian Edition.
This December, Leslie is back with yet another show, as he and friends Teng Xiang Ting (soprano), Alvin Tan (baritone) and Pauline Lee on piano come together to perform Sure on this Shining Night, a unique recital experience that will showcase not only Christmas carols, but also traditional and classic art songs from Handel to Schubert! We spoke to Leslie to find out a little more about the show and his thoughts on the local opera scene. Read the interview in full below:
Bakchormeeboy: How did the idea for Sure on this Shining Night come about?
Leslie Tay: Pauline (our pianist) and I have been longtime friends since secondary school, where we were in the choir together. We drifted apart for a while, but reconnected again when we were in NUS, even singing in the same acapella group. Pauline is a very good pianist and accompanist, something that’s rare because she’s not only piano trained but vocally trained as well, and she’s very attuned to the human voice. For this show, Pauline really wanted to do something herself. She accompanies at SOTA and teaches a lot, so she’s mostly playing music dictated by other people. Last year, she did a recital in March which went well, so we decided to do another this year, except with more colleagues and friends this time. It was a chance for her to work on music she wanted to, not because had to for an exam or someone else’s performance.
Bakchormeeboy: Where did the title for the show come from?
Leslie: The title of the show is actually from a poem by James Agee, and it was famously arranged for song by Samuel Barber. But there’s actually another version of it by Morton Lauridsen. I first came across Lauridsen when I was singing with the Singapore Youth Choir and listened to more of his music, many of which started as choral works. But due to his popularity, he transcribed it for different voices, different forms and instrumental ensembles, and I eventually found one for soprano-tenors. I liked it and that’s how the title came about. But it so happens that we were given the Recital Studio in December, so we thought we might as well do a Christmas theme, and play some sacred music to go along with it too.
Bakchormeeboy: What can we expect to see at the recital?
Leslie: We’re doing a couple of Christmas carols, but a lot of it will be sacred music, so Alvin is doing ‘Ave Maria’ for example, and some lesser known art songs. I did a lot of these songs while I was in Boston, and discovered there were actually a lot of Christmas themed art songs in general. We’re segmenting the concert into different parts, so there’s a sacred songs section, a French art songs of Christmas section and another segment where we do familiar favourites. We’ll also be premiering a new work that Pauline’s brother Lee Jin Jun composed, with words by Aaron Lee. Pauline wanted to do something completely original, and something that all three singers could perform together, so we decided to do a song about Christmas shopping, the one item that touches on the commercial aspect of the season.
Bakchormeeboy: What do you think were the greatest challenges in putting up this performance?
Leslie: I was going to say budget, but that’s really a universal problem. We actually have a unique case where we’ve been rehearsing separately up till now, since Xiang Ting is in Switzerland right now till next week. We’ll only get to rehearse in person with her for 4 days. The difficulty lies in trying to coordinate rehearsals, since we’re also all busy doing a million other things. Musically though, we all contributed suggestions to the repertoire, so we’ve been really enjoying the process and the songs we’ve been practicing. The toughest song so far is actually the new composed Christmas song. Personally, contemporary has always been the most challenging for me, but we’re pretty comfortable after a couple of weeks of rehearsals, and it’s really exciting how it’s the first time anyone is performing it.
Bakchormeeboy: What has been the motivation to keep going and make this show a reality?
Leslie: Both Pauline and I are teachers, and we spend so much time thinking of music for students. Sometimes, you need to set aside space to do music you want to work on as well, and it’s really about doing something for ourselves. You can get really drained from giving all the time, so this show was in a way, taking care of ourselves musically, and a way to recharge our own batteries, almost like a spa, allowing us to re-energize and remind ourselves what it feels like to be a performer. To be a better teacher I need to constantly perform, because it’s easy to be a teacher and tell people what to do on stage but not be the one doing it.
Bakchormeeboy: How can we continue keeping the local opera scene alive and vibrant?
Leslie: I think the key is collaboration. Our concert may just be one more event in the arts calendar, but it’s still one more concert for friends to get together and perform, as a group. Sometimes for a scene to grow, all the players need to collaborate and cooperate more, introducing people to each other and finding more opportunities. People in the previous generation were mostly doing things in their own circles, and nowadays there are more of us going away to study and coming back. We’re not just colleagues, we’re friends and it’s all about finding more creative opportunities to collaborate and establish that feeling of solidarity and community.
Bakchormeeboy: How has the local opera scene changed over the years?
Leslie: I think it’s much more developed than it used to be. There are so many more singers in the local scene now and people are finding more opportunities to work and perform. This year, the Singapore Lyric Opera performed ‘The Elixir of Love’ and it was the first time it consisted of a fully Singaporean/PR cast in its entire 25 year history onstage. More can still be done but it’s something that takes time. We are also very much trapped in a certain idea of how opera needs to be, because that’s the tradition and convention we were brought up with. Our challenge is to push, which becomes difficult because no matter what you do, you will always have detractors: purists will denounce you if you stray too far, or if you’re too safe, the mass audience isn’t interested in it because of the preconceived idea that opera is for the elite, stuffy and are far too long.
Opera has centuries of history behind it, which also comes with plenty of baggage. We’re not an European country steeped in operatic history and tradition, and there will always be this feeling of detachment when we watch opera locally. It’s about convincing people it’s something they can come to appreciate, even when opera can feel irrelevant to modern society. As practitioners and lovers of opera, it’s all about building that bridge and finding the right bridge and middle ground.
Bakchormeeboy: What do you think is the biggest takeaway for audiences from your show?
Leslie: Every time I perform, I hope people will be moved by something in the programme. In the time they spend in the theatre, I hope they’ll connect with a moment, and as long as everyone in the audience feels that, we have achieved something. My main aim though, is to make them understand why we do it, and come away with an understanding of why the people onstage keep doing it, piquing their curiosity and discovering more on their own.
You can catch Leslie at Sure on this Shining Night plays at the Esplanade Recital Studio on 16th December 2017 (6pm and 8pm). Tickets available from Peatix.