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★★★★☆ Review: In Our Manner of Speaking – The AIDS Quilt Songbook by The Opera People

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Singing of hope and life amidst fear in The Opera People’s latest showcase.

With a wild storm brewing outside, being inside the intimate studio at W!ld Rice felt incredibly warm and cosy, as we settled in for the latest edition of The Opera People’s In Our Manner of Speaking. The show began as The Opera People co-founder Shridar Mani arrived to address the audience and set our expectations for the evening, reminding us how the series was all about addressing contemporary issues in song. This time around, in touching on the topic of viruses, not only do they remember the AIDS pandemic, but also the ongoing COVID-19 situation, encouraging us to get together and support both causes as they performed songs from The AIDS Quilt Songbook.

Referencing the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, hanging at the back of the studio was a Quarantine Quilt, created by artist Jimmy Ong and 3Pumpkins. A constant set-piece throughout the performance, we thought about how the patchwork came together to form a stronger whole, and how similarly, we can make anything happen when we unite as people. Buttons on the quilt also reminded us of the stickers we receive after a temperature check.

The performance opened with poet Cyril Wong reciting The Gift, a reminder that it is a gift to be alive every day and to appreciate what we have. Wendy Woon then arrived onstage to perform the first song of the evening, with Lori Laitman’s arrangement of Emily Dickinson’s If I can stop one heart from breaking. Wendy’s voice was full of strength and helped to carry the song’s message across, setting the tone for the evening.

Performing the next piece, Ng Jingyun showed off her talents, and precisely why she has the prestige of continuing her Alexander Technique Teacher training at ATCA (Amsterdam) in 2021. With a powerful rendition of Kamala Sankaram’s thought-provoking The Far Shore, we were reminded once again of the premise of this performance. Jingyun was then joined by Leslie Tay, and the two performed Stephen Sondheim’s Not While I’m Around from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. A typical Sondheim number, both performers sung beautifully, their soprano and tenor voices complementing each other and filled with emotion, almost musical-like in their rendition.

Cyril then recited his second poem of the evening, Tested, a poignant message about acceptance. Jingyun then goes into a rendition of Emily Dickinson’s I’m Nobody (also arranged by Lori Laitman), singing it almost as a response to the poem. Akiko Otao then performs and shows off her vocal range with Libby Larsen’s Perineo. It seemed unlikely that the clashing chords would work, yet when they came together, they seemed to create new meaning. Akiko also shows off her repertoire by singing in Italian. Performed in its native language, Akiko manages to bring out all the nuances in the piece. On the piano, Pauline Lee showed power and control, while Akiko was fierce, even roaring like a tiger at one point. These expressions helped bring out the meaning of the piece, before ending on a thoughtful note.

Cyril then recited Take Our Cue From Time, a poem that almost transcends time itself before Wendy Woon returned to perform Lori Laitman’s Will There Really Be A Morning? Wendy’s voice seemed to linger in the air with each note she sings, the song haunting in its doubt over if a new day would come.

Cyril now recites while Jingyun sings, and it was almost as if after Cyril read his poem, Jingyun was there to perform it in her own voice. This marked the world premiere of Cyril Wong’s Viral Lode as set to music by local composer Chen Zhangyi, which was specially commissioned for this programme. Opening with clashing notes, it felt like a wake-up call. Pianist Pauline then plays in the lower octaves, creating a low mood, and one thought about how the only way forward from here was up. With Cyril’s voice inserted as a reminder of his own words, there are several repetitions heard, reminding us of the poignant message the song was trying to share. The words chosen for the poem were beautiful, to say the least, and tells it as it is, etching themselves into our memories. As Cyril recited the final stanza, it felt as if he was telling us that sometimes, words are louder than actions.

David Charles Tay then comes on to perform John Musto’s Heartbeats (from Melvin Dixon’s poem), sounding firm, angry and ready to fight. This piece showed off his caliber, with his vocal prowess and strong enunciation. David’s control here is emphatic, displaying his frustrated mood, as if he were signaling to the audience “where do we go now?” As the tonality of his singing went ‘berserk’, Pauline helped bring out the strength of the piece by complementing the singing, before David ended by breathing in and out as he stared into the abyss.

Akiko then sings Sondheim’s Stay With Me, from Into the Woods, one could feel a forlorn feeling in the song. She has an almost demanding stage presence, and as the song instructed us to stay with her, she does make us want to comply and just be with her.

Now as Leslie sings Ricky Ian Gordon’s I Never Knew. This was a piece he controlled very well, bringing out the full range of emotions in the song. It made us feel and think about what we should do today or tomorrow, and to take each day like a gift, and live without regrets.

David returns to sing Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s The Last Song. This was a piece that showed off his repertoire and incredible range, effortlessly hitting all the notes with aplomb. David brought us on a journey, and made us want to stick with him through thick and thin, his range and emotions kept together in this compact and well executed performance. As he sang the final line ‘between a father and his son’, it made me think about the wonderful relationship I had with mine.

As the company now comes together to sing Charlie Smalls’ Home, from The Wiz, Cyril started off the piece by singing in a falsetto, and was real and strong . The song was full of personal meaning, and well arranged to match the right singers to each stanza. Their voices came together in one cohesive package, and ended the performance on a high. But at the end of it all, we were also left reflecting upon what we had just watched, and thought about all that we have to be thankful in life for, and in general, life itself.

From introducing new talents onstage, to reuniting old friends with one another, to even bringing together new mediums with poetry and song, with this edition of In Our Manner of Speaking, The Opera People have once again done managed to harness the power of opera to achieve their goal of connecting people. The AIDS Quilt Songbook marks another worthy addition to the group’s ever-growing repertoire, bringing love, warmth and joy to all in attendance.

Performance attended 22/3/20 (5pm)

In Our Manner of Speaking – The AIDS Quilt Songbook played from 21st to 22nd March 2020 at 5pm and 8pm at the Studio @ W!ld Rice. 

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