Summer Song has led a multicultured life. Born in China, she moved to Singapore when she was just 8, before moving to Toronto 11 years ago to work. Obtaining a Masters from Columbia in New York, she entered the financial services and did corporate jobs before it finally hit her along the way that something was missing in her life. And then she realised what it was – a distinct sense of distance from her own culture after moving away from Asia, and leaving her forlorn for it.
“It’s a very interesting conundrum we’re in,” Summer explains. “As Asians, growing up, we’re often not really exposed to our own arts and never see it as a viable way of life. We end up not even being very exposed to the arts unless we learn how to actively seek it out. And even when you do, your own culture is often buried in how much mainstream culture is dominated by the West, who define what is normal, what is beautiful and what is acceptable even today, leading us to know so much more about them and so little about us.”
On a trip to Argentina with her parents, the family ended up watching a tango performance, before joining a small tango class and really engaging with it. She then thought about how her own mother was a trained Beijing Opera singer, and realised how much she wanted to give her own culture a chance to take the spotlight and stop being dismissed for misconceptions about being ‘old and boring’. “I thought about how we could possibly showcase our culture in our own voice, rather than wait till a foreign company tries to sell it back to us,” Summer explains. “And I ended up thinking about what was trending at the moment – the experience economy, where participants go beyond watching things and really immerse themselves in it. In the USA you’ve got pop-up museums and exhibitions, and sure they’re fun, but why not take advantage of that pre-existing model and go one step further by giving it some depth and meaning?”
That, in short is what led her to conceptualise Operatic Identities, a first-of-its-kind, Beijing Opera-themed pop-up experience taking place at the China Cultural Centre. Set to engage all five senses with an immersive opera performance, interactive art installations, and even get up close and personal with famous opera characters via curated cocktails, the showcase is certainly a unique one unlike anything else we’ve seen before.
“What makes us Asian is our history, and we have one of the oldest civilisations in the world,” says Summer. “I thought, let’s take advantage of that and insert it into the immersive model, adapting it accordingly so that we can introduce my culture to the public in this thoroughly modern way, going beyond the corporate style versions I’ve been involved in while in London and New York.”
Elaborating a little more on her own history with Beijing Opera, Summer adds: “With a mother who practiced Beijing Opera, I basically grew up around the art form, so I do know a little more than a lot of people, but I’m not an expert. In my teens, I really didn’t take it seriously, while my mother has been teaching and promoting opera in Singapore for over 30 years now. She’s had joint concerts with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, taught at NAFA, and is basically very established in her own field.”
“More recently,” she continues. “My mother did a number of seminars and performances at the China Cultural Centre that were very well-received, and they asked her to do something similar again this year. I jumped at the opportunity and decided to suggest doing something completely new, attempting to expand the audience reach with this immersive experience. I decided to work closely with my mother and figuring out how we can break things down into bite-sized, digestible pieces while staying true to the art form. The Centre read our proposal and decided it was a good way of trying to build the audiences, and that was how it all started.”
Taking place over just 60 minutes per session, audiences can expect to experience a different side to the China Cultural Centre, with producers CulturedGen having repurposed the entire theatre to carefully curate the journey for each individual participant. Attendees can expect to walk around backstage, and explore the stage, each parts turned into rooms to be discovered at their own pace after the first performance.
What’s perhaps also interesting is the introduction of food and alcohol into the experience, offering a selection of Michelin-starred Chinese small dishes as well as four craft baijiu cocktails, which were devised with a local mixologist to represent the four character archetypes of a typical Beijing Opera – Sheng (male), Dan (female), Jing (painted face), and Chou (male clown) via each taste profile, from sweet to sour and even Mala. On why baijiu in particular, besides being a quintessentially Chinese alcohol, Summer explains: “Much like xiqu, or Chinese opera, baijiu has a very long history but has been confined to a specific group of consumers till today. The export of baijiu from China is actually less than 1% of total baijiu production, even though it’s still the most consumed alcohol in the world!”
“And similar to food and music,” she continues. “Understanding and absorbing culture is all about greater exposure, and the more you’re exposed to it, the more you can learn to grow to like it, instead of fearing it because it’s an unknown. It’s also a way to get people into the show and meet them halfway, rather than simply giving them a full blown Beijing Opera, which might turn them off altogether. By combining food, drink and performance, we tell this same story in a new way by engaging all five senses of our audience members.”
As her first time properly doing a project of this scale and ambition, planning and production took approximately 6 months, sourcing for the right materials, building everything from scratch and finding the right performers, including 2 NAFA theatre students professionally trained in Beijing Opera. “It’s not easy to do something that’s both beautiful and has meaning,” Summer concludes. “And it’s even harder when there isn’t a natural demand for the art form. This is our way then of trying to generate the demand, letting people see opera in a new light. It’s not a safe thing to do at all, but if I wanted to be safe, I’d have brought in a copy of a successful show instead. It’d rather have tried and failed than not have tried this at all, and above all, I do hope to continue doing this, and that we get valuable feedback from attendees to help us plan our next concept and keep bettering each experience.”
Operatic Identities plays from 9th to 10th November 2019 at the China Cultural Centre. Tickets available from Eventbrite