Celebrating the women of song in a casual setting.
Located just off Joo Chiat Place, the campus-like The Yards stands quiet on a Saturday evening, the weather cool in the wake of a storm as we traipse over from a nearby bus-stop. Weaving our way in amidst the buildings to arrive at the third floor of Block 406, we find ourselves in the quaint NJ Studio, a cosy alcove of peace that feels like a personal living room. This is the setting for The Opera People’s In Our Manner of Speaking – The Clara Schumann Project.
The theme tying the entire performance together, besides the works of Clara Schumann, was a showcase of songs either composed by females or about womanhood. There are no frills to this performance, and due to the space, the distance between audience and performer is practically non-existent, allowing for an intimate performance where one feels each and every song is directed at us, the emotions and musical nuances in each piece keenly felt in every moment. With Pauline Lee on piano, the performance dove straight in to three works by Schumann, starting with mezzo-soprano Michelle Tan dressed in a champagne pink dress, whose sweet voice brought out the simple, raw emotions from Liebst du um Schönheit (If you love for beauty) and Ich hab’ in deinem Auge den Strahl (I once looked into your eyes).
Soprano Ng Jingyun then took to the stage, and performed Schumann’s Lorelei, her powerful voice forceful, saddened and filled with dread as she sang this tale of an evil siren luring men to their dooms, before moving on to Alma Mahler’s Ansturm (Onslaught), a similarly themed song dealing with overflowing passion, at times locking her eyes directly with audience members to allow us to feel every emotion from her voice. But for Jingyun, the best was still to come, as she covered Tania Leon’s Memory, a rousing, powerful piece that showed off her range, control, and precision with her voice.
Soprano Felicia Teo Kaixin shows off the strongest showmanship and a real flair for movement as she makes her entrance singing Mahler’s In meines Vaters Garten (In my father’s garden), a lengthy song in which she walks into the space from outside, her face expressive as she recounts this tale of an apple tree made epic, addressing fellow performers Michelle Tan and Rebecca Li, all the while maintaining her vocal quality even when seated. Again, she shows off her range with Can’t Help Loving Dat Man of Mine from the musical Showboat, giving the originally sad song a jauntier beat, reappropriating the song for herself as she chooses not to mourn over a man’s neglect but simply accepting it and highlighting her strength as an independent woman.
Soprano Rebecca Li also impresses with her vocal quality, taking on Nadia Boulanger’s Soir d’hiver (Winter Evening) as she sings of motherhood and of a single mother with her child on Christmas, bringing out the sadness inherent in the song. As a mother herself, she undertakes the song’s persona completely, bringing out all the subtle nuances and emotions present. But where she truly impresses is with Back to Before from Ragtime, the penultimate song of the evening where she shines bright and rouses the entire roomful of audiences and hits every note on point, striking at our hearts and confidently vocalizing every emotion in it that leaves us breathless.
Throughout, poet Pooja Nansi recited various poems in English about women and girlhood, an unusual choice during a recital that helped to break the usual structure of song after song, each successive poem covering varied topics from menstruation (Lucille Clifton) to masturbation (Anne Sexton), yet well-chosen for their keen language and ability to elevate these often taboo topics into personal, emotional acts, and helping to shape the performance to encompass not just beauty, but every other intensely personal aspect they comprise of, from motherhood to faith to loneliness.
The performance ends, interestingly, with Pooja Nansi actually joining in the singing, performing Nina Simone’s Four Women, about various African-American stereotypes in society. She is then joined by Michelle, Jingyun and Felicia in completing the rest of the song, a surprisingly sombre tune to end off the night as opposed to a showstopper. But it does what it needs to do – it captures the fact that it takes all kinds of women to make up the world, women in distress, women in power, women with men and women without men. If anything, these songs by women remain testament that female composers and writers have a craft and a voice that lasts through the ages, and deserve as much celebration as male ones.
Performance attended 23/3/19 (7.30pm)
In Our Manner of Speaking – The Clara Schumann Project played at NJ Studio, 406 Joo Chiat Place #03-24 The Yards, from 23rd to 24th March 2019. For more information on The Opera People and their upcoming performance of Der Zwerg (The Dwarf), follow them on Facebook here