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Dwarf: An Interview with The Opera People Founders Jonathan and David Charles Tay, and Shridar Mani

Screenshot 2019-06-07 at 1.31.10 AM

The world as we know it can be a cruel place, where the slightest of differences can provoke discrimination and prejudice. With The Opera People’s latest production, they’re set to tackle this head-on, with a new version of Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg (The Dwarf), in its Southeast Asian premiere.

In speaking to the founders of The Opera People, namely Jonathan Charles Tay, David Charles Tay and Shridar Mani, we found out that this production has, in fact, been percolating in their heads for a long time. Says David: “It’s so well written, and it’s very modern. Considering it was written in 1922, when people had other forms of entertainment like film, it packs quite a punch, and reads quite cinematically back to us, more like a play than an opera actually.”

Inspired by Oscar Wilde’s short story The Infanta’s Birthday, the original Der Zwerg revolves around a dwarf, who is presented as a gift to the princess of Spain on her birthday. Falling in love with her, it’s not long before he realises he can never be together with her, and tragedy strikes. In The Opera People’s version, directed by Edith Podesta, the story has been updated, shifting the setting to an elite girls school where the wealthiest rule, and the students are putting on a production of The Infanta’s Birthday. As a social experiment, they invite a singer from a lower social class to play the dwarf. The lines between performance and reality become blurred, and it’s not long before the performer’s story begins to parallel that of the performance.

Says David: “In the original short story by Oscar Wilde, The Infanta’s Birthday was a statement about society and how there are those who treat others as lesser. What attracted composer von Zemlinsky to this piece was actually his own feeling of being small. He fell in love with composer Alma Mahler, and was seated next to her and her new husband while watching the ballet version of this piece. The reason the two never got together was because Mahler never wanted to bring ‘tiny ugly Jewish children into the world’. So von Zemlinsky ended up writing this for very personal reasons, because he identified with the dwarf, and you can really feel his pain and feelings of inadequacy and rejection in his music.”

On its modernisation and re-contextualisation, David explains: “We’ve held onto that idea and transposed it for a more modern audience, something they would be able to relate to in today’s society. You could see it as a race thing, like how in America, I’m a minority, and for Shridar, he feels it right here in Singapore. I also think of this piece as related to the psychological things we have to handle while growing up; none of us were born with a silver spoon in our mouths, and we all had to find our own way, work hard, and overcome feelings of not being treated like everyone else. It’s a relatable scenario, and if you think about it, our character in the show isn’t actually inadequate, but treated as such, and I think everyone will be able to take something away from that.”

Both Jonathan and David will play the titular dwarf, who tragically falls in love with the infanta, played by Felicia Teo Kaixin. Says Jonathan: “Although this is one of the hardest roles we’ve played, I think we’ve gone thru enough life stuff to at least relate to it in some way, and certainly can think of some situations where I felt like I was being treated differently, and even then, there’s so many layers than go beyond race or status or being angry.”

David adds: “Dwarf isn’t purely about the inequality experienced; it’s also about falling in love, and loving someone who’s beyond you, and that’s just not your fault. You can’t be together because of the need to maintain social expectations, and it’s about how far you are you willing to go along before admitting that this is a problem. What Edith is doing in her direction is to take away from the ‘freakshow’ idea and teasing out the hidden love story in it. I think audiences will watch it and go oh man, I’m that guy or/girl, or seen it happen to someone else before.”

Knowing that director Edith Podesta is well-versed in movement work and really bringing out the theatricality of her pieces, Shridar explains: “This is the first time we’re really thinking about movements and choreography. It’s easy to be a singer, where you do your concert then go home, but as an individual, you have to want to grow. To do that, you have to put yourself in situations where there’s more to do rather than just park and bark.

After their debut production Love and Duty last year, Dwarf will once again be staged at the Esplanade Annexe Studio. On the choice, Shridar says: “Why we came back to the Annexe Studio is because we like how close and intimate the setting is. In usual opera spaces, you’re usually so far away that you can’t even see the singer’s face. And for people at the opera for the first time, there’s already that physical and musical barrier that makes you feel even more distant. When you’re close up, even though it demands a lot more from the singer, there’s this emotional catharsis audience members can get out of that. In future, we do want to explore even more spaces like the Annexe Studio, and feel a kind of freedom in our venue choices.”

Besides Jonathan, David and Felicia, the remainder of the cast is rounded up by Cherie Tse and Ng Jingyun as the attendant Ghita, Alvin Tan as the Headmaster, and a number of maids and young girls, played by Moira Loh, Phoebe Chee, Priscilla Fong, Kira Lim and Azura Farid. Says Shridar: “A lot of our cast are younger, and for a lot of them, it’s actually their first time doing a big, professional role, not just putting them in the chorus!”

He adds: “A lot of it is about finding balance, where we want to give them the platform to excel while still giving them a challenge to improve themselves. We’ve been very happy with them so far, and even though some of them aren’t even classically trained, we’re here to help nurture them. It’s never a case of oh here are the veterans, you have to be as good as us but also you can’t outshine us, but really, it’s about empowering everyone.”

Shridar: “A lot of things start from building a good relationship, not just with the singers and directors, but even with the venues and tech crew. Once you form up these relationships, and have a vision of what we want, then it’s a matter of constantly shaping and reflecting on our work, and see how we can keep improving, keep doing something different. We’re constantly having these conversations with each other and trying not to get stuck in our own ways.”

On what The Opera People aims to do in the long run, Shridar explains: “These days, there are so many choices when it comes to entertainment, and it’s just very important to do things that are meaningful, whether it’s in the field of opera or not. The most important thing is to break away from putting ourselves in a box, and not thinking that it has to be done in a certain way, in order to keep our audiences engaged with our medium of choice – opera.”

Says Jonathan, wistfully: “One day, I hope that we’ll have a catalogue of good shows we’ve done that we can find some way of selling to markets overseas. Singapore is the great importer of foreign shows and talent after all, but maybe, we can eventually find a way to do the opposite of that.”

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David adds: “We have this vision we discuss when we do shows, and that’s anchored in always producing quality productions we believe in. Our work is always created collaboratively with our conductor and director, as opposed to say just handing it over to them and letting them do whatever. In that same way, part of our philosophy lies in being inclusive in the opera community, where we’re always thinking of ways we can include and involve more people.”

He concludes: “We’re always trying to watch more things and constantly improve ourselves. We see things both locally and internationally, and we always think about how we can do things in our own way, especially when we watch things that use new ideas that give us new inspiration. Maybe sometime in the future, if we raise enough money, we can even bring in shows overseas here, or take on foreign directors to come enrich our scene and give our own people the opportunity to work with these great artists.”

Dwarf plays on 12th and 14th July 2019 at the Esplanade Annexe Studio. Tickets available from Peatix

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