Life is Ha-Ha-Happiness: An Interview with Performers Leslie Tay and Michelle Tan

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Perk up your September with a little music, as opera singers Teng Xiang Ting (soprano), Michelle Tan (mezzo), Leslie Tay (tenor), Alvin Tan (baritone), and pianist Pauline Lee arrive at the Esplanade Recital Studio to show that classical music can be accessible and even laugh out loud!

Titled Life is Ha-Ha-Happiness, the repertoire of light-hearted songs from musical history is sure to put a smile on any audience member’s face, with songs about animals to an Alto lamenting her boring music, in addition to a brand an all new song by composer Lee Jin Jun’s as he pokes fun at local newspaper headlines. We spoke to performers Leslie Tay and Michelle Tan to find out a little more about the performance before it premieres next week, read the interview in full below:
Leslie Tay and Michelle Tan
Bakchormeeboy: What was the intent behind organising this recital? Do you think there is a misconception that classical music can’t be light-hearted?

Michelle: 
We wanted to share the happiness we feel when making music in the company of great friends! We have lots of fun whenever we get together to sing and decided on this selection of cheerful, charming and cheeky songs for the recital so we can share that joy with our audience. Many of the songs are in English, which means you can more easily understand the jokes and humorous references in them.

Leslie: We are sure there are many who still think of classical music as boring, stuffy and overly serious. We want to show them that classical music also has its fun and lighter side through celebrating the endless possibilities of the classically trained voice. I will be singing a rock and roll like song and our soprano Xiang Ting, will be singing a sensual passionate tango! There is quite a selection of musical theatre and contemporary works that will definitely tickle your funny bone too!
 
Bakchormeeboy: How did you decide on the pieces that would be featured in the recital? Were there any you knew for sure you’d be using from the very beginning?

Michelle: Leslie (who owns millions of CDs and music scores!) was the one who came up with the final list of songs for the recital. We all made suggestions based on our own research online and in libraries and he then came up with this incredibly well-curated program, making sure we all got equal stage time! There is a whole segment of songs about animals (fat turkeys, little ducks, a giant crocodile and even a green-eyed dragon!) and another which throws a spotlight on the stereotypes of our respective voice parts (the diva soprano, the alto who never gets to sing melody, the tenor who always cracks, and the baritone who secretly desires to sing tenor tunes!).

Leslie: 
There were a couple of pieces I definitely wanted to include! The first is a Victorian duet titled “Tenor and Baritone” which I sang a very long time ago. I wanted to feature the vocal bromance that I enjoy with our baritone Alvin Tan. We have sung a lot together in the past few years and friends say our voices blend extremely well together. We did the “The Prayer” for our Christmas concert last year and I thought this would be a perfect showcase of our bromance for this concert. The second piece is Aaron Copland’s arrangement of the children’s song “I Bought Me a Cat” which Pauline and I did for our first recital in 2016. It’s kind of like “Old Macdonald Had a Farm” and we are using it as the audience participation piece for this concert so you will get to join us in making animal noises if you come!
Bakchormeeboy: JJ Lee will be making the world premiere of his new work Headlines. Tell us what audiences can expect from that particular piece.

Leslie: Jinjun’s work is actually a song cycle comprising 3 songs, each of which features actual newspaper headlines which he has very cleverly interpreted musically. 2 of the songs juxtapose headlines which seem to contradict each other. Jinjun uses bitonality (the use of two keys simultaneously) in one and the musical equivalent of tragicomedy in the other to highlight that contradiction. He also uses the sensuality of the Habanera to illustrate the subject matter of the last piece.

Michelle: They are not realist pieces. Rather, they remind us that although newspapers are supposed to reflect truth and reality, in this age of fake news, headlines can be interpreted in multiple ways, just like every other form of literature. On a more philosophical level, it may be good to think deeper about these questions: How many ways can we read our local headlines? Is interpreting these words the work of the journalist, editor, reader, composer, pianist, or the singer? Just as how newspapers are supposed to represent reality, these songs illustrate how news headlines can be a little bite of a surreal and satirical cupcake.

Leslie: Her answer very cheem hor? I only study literature. Michelle teach literature one. Don’t play play. And yes, I would like to eat that cupcake.
Bakchormeeboy: What is the one song that can be assured to cheer you up and put a smile on your face?

Michelle: 
My song “Alto’s Lament” for sure! It pokes fun at the monotonous parts altos have to sing in the greatest musical numbers. I’m not a true alto and definitely not a musical theatre gal but I completely relate!!! As a choir singer, I’ve grown up singing functional harmony. While boring at times, I secretly relish the challenge of singing the harmonic line (seated a safe distance from the blasty sopranos!).

Leslie: I think my song, Maury Yeston’s “I Don’t Wanna Rock and Roll” is going to be the hit of the recital! It’s a song about a music lover who says he is done with rock and roll and wants only to listen to classical music. Ironically, the song he sings is written in a rock and roll style! I get to be a rock and roll star!!
Bakchormeeboy: What is the secret to keeping a smile on your face throughout the performance, or how do you mentally prepare for the performance? 
 
Leslie: I challenge myself to be like a kid in a playground and play when I am on stage, trying to ignore the voices of doubt and judgement we sensitive overachieving artistes tend to have playing in our heads all the time! Easier said than done of course!

Michelle: 
Immerse yourself in the character you play. Live and breathe the words. Be the story. Play! However weird the character seems to be, remember that the world is actually wacky and wonderful. And always be willing to laugh at yourself!

Life is Ha-Ha-Happiness plays at the Esplanade Recital Studio on 5th September 2018. Tickets available from Peatix
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