Arts Opera Preview Singapore

The Opera People’s In Our Manner of Speaking: An Interview with Producer Shridar Mani

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International Women’s Day may be over, but that doesn’t mean we stop celebrating women and their achievements throughout the rest of the year. For their first production of 2019, The Opera People are presenting In Our Manner of Speaking: The Clara Schumann Project, in which the team commemorates the eponymous composer’s 200th birthday with a recital all about female composers and female voices, ranging from classical works to jazz, to even musical theatre.

Says producer Shridar Mani: “There’s lots of theatrical and literary events that always happen during International Women’s Day, but very little music. This is our way of contributing back, to showcase women of all kinds across all forms of art and help people see beyond this bubble they’ve put themselves in.”

For the company, founded by brothers and opera singers Jonathan and David Charles Tay, there is a possibility that such a project may come across as a form of tokenism, rather than representation and empowerment. Countering that viewpoint, Shridar explains: “Tokenism is about creating the illusion of empowerment, but representation is about clearing the space and passing the mic to another to get their point of view. It’s giving them the space to do what they want, and not have it be dictated by someone else, making the performance very much their own. We’re The Opera People after all, not The Opera Boys, and we’re here to provide this inclusive space for everyone, to start this conversation within the realm of the art form.”

He elaborates: “As men, we feel a responsibility to be the ones initiating the conversation, to ensure there’s the space for it. We’ve programmed the show, but we’ve always been doing that in conjunction with female advisors – Pooja Nansi, for example, who will be doing poetry readings during the show, has provided plenty of useful thoughts and opinions. There’s been this very conscious choice in our repertoire, be it the female composed pieces or even those written by men – for the latter, we consider how it feels for a woman to be performing or reading these words, to see things from her perspective and find the feminine energy in all these forms and bring it out.”

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In Our Manner of Speaking stars singers Rebecca Li, Ng Jingyun, Felicia Teo Kaixin and Michelle Tan, accompanied by pianist Pauline Lee, a team of powerful female singers and musicians working in the music industry today. On the choice to showcase an all female team, Shridar says: “The moment a man enters the conversation, he tends to dominate it, and the performance is no longer entirely about women. The musical theatre pieces we picked, the composers may be men, with Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man from Showboat and Back to Before from Ragtime, and putting them into context, you realise how misogynistic some of them can be, especially with the first being about a woman pining for a man, and it’s about putting these patriarchal songs in dialogue with everything else, and how we think about music and songs differently.”

On the cast themselves, Shridar speaks of Jingyun, explaining that she’ll be the one performing the Tania León pieces, and that it was a chance to challenge her in the Schumann pieces about bringing out the sensibility and sensitivity of them. “She’s a very spunky performer, and she’s got this untapped energy within her, so we need her to learn how to chill but also direct that energy into singing and performing – one thing she’ll be doing is sing a song about Lorelei, a siren-like mermaid who traps men and kills them.”

“Meanwhile,” he continues. “Rebecca Li hasn’t been seen onstage for some time because she became a mother, taking some time off to raise her daughter, and we wanted to bring her back before she disappears from the art scene altogether. She’s singing a song about motherhood by Nadia Boulanger, so we’re taking her experiences and using it to shape her performance. She’s also the one doing Back to Before, and to sing that as a working mother, it’s an interesting perspective, because it reappropriates the piece in the context of having to raise a child and go to work and juggle all of it.”

The space that The Opera People have chosen to perform this at may be one few people have even heard about – NJ Studio at The Yards in Joo Chiat. Says Shridar: “This is actually a studio that belongs to pianist Nabillah Jalal, and we wanted to bring things out of the usual formal spaces, and make this recital something of a cabaret. We wanted to put audiences in a small, intimate, and very relaxed environment, and really have audiences feel the energy emanating off the performers. It’s also great that we’re shifting the area itself to other neighbourhoods, and break the idea that a recital HAS to be in the city centre or arts district. There’s good acoustics, plus, we’ll even be serving up wine!”

Giving us an insight into what else The Opera People might be doing later this year, Shridar adds: “Next week, Jonathan will be performing at the Esplanade Concourse with songs by Benjamin Britten set to poetry by WH Auden and Walt Whitman. But our big opera for this year will actually be a very rarely performed opera by Alexander von Zemlinksy, to be performed in July at the Esplanade Annexe Studio. It’s called Der Zwerg, or The Dwarf, and it’s based off an Oscar Wilde short story about a princess who receives a dwarf as a gift for her birthday. He falls in love with her, but she rejects him, forcing him to look into a mirror at himself and he eventually kills himself at the end. We’re tweaking it to make it a way of looking at social inequality instead, where the dwarf is a metaphor for the ugliness of the rat race and wealth , and it’ll be directed by Edith Podesta.”

Shridar concludes “‘Parking and barking’ will only make people more disinterested, and we’re already fighting with so many other entertainment forms, from pop music to theatre to Netflix. We have to make classical music something for people to feel excited about, a new way of bringing elements of pop into it, and something they don’t feel like they need to keep at arm’s length from. We’re not here to just create museum pieces for people to stare at. It’s about framing this performance right and for highlighting its importance, and what these songs bring to the table. ”

In Our Manner of Speaking – The Clara Schumann Project plays at NJ Studio, 406 Joo Chiat Place #03-24 The Yards, from 23rd to 24th March 2019. Tickets available from Peatix

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