Migration and movement explored through song.
Following their previous live performance, one of the last to take place in a venue before circuit breaker measures in 2020, The Opera People returned to Wild Rice’s theatre studio for their annual iteration of In Our Manner of Speaking. Combining poetry read by Joel Tan), art songs, classical tunes and contemporary numbers, the performance present commentary on the lives of migrants and travel in our modern times.
There is a sense of sadness that hangs in the air as we enter the studio theatre, seating just 18 audience members (at a maximum capacity of over 50), and we reflect on all we’ve lost over the year, before The Opera People co-founder Shridar Mani arrives onstage. He speaks about the migrant community, and how their issues have too often been swept under the rug, made more prominent after the migrant worker dorm fiasco of 2020. Perhaps then, this performance is a a reminder that it’s time to turn our gaze to these often unsung heroes, and the challenges they face as solitary travellers seeking better lives in a new country.
The performance opens with André Previn’s ‘The Giraffes Go To Hamburg’, as Alvin Seville Arumugam plays the flute to introduce the piece. Pianist Pauline Lee on piano immerses us into savannah with her notes, before soprano Ng Jingyun comes onstage. She delivers on the song – powerful, assured and confident in spite of the challenging range of notes this song requires of its singer.This almost replicates how the giraffes of the song seem to go on an arduous journey, with Jingyun effortlessly bringing out the emotions in the song through her voice and expressions. Towards the end, as we bid farewell to the giraffes, the mood grows darker, and the flute trails off, almost as if we are growing further and more distant from the piece.
Akiko Otao then sings the newly commissioned ‘Lines From Batu Ferringhi’ (by Jonathan Shin, as inspired by Goh Poh Seng’s poetry). Weary and terrifying in her demeanour, despite the short piece, she shows off her range and character work, bringing us on a perfect arc before segueing into Adam Zagajewski’s ‘Try to Praise the Mutilated World’, bearing the weight of the world in her voice.
We now turn our attention to Moira Loh, as she performs two songs from André Previn’s ‘Honey and Rue’ song cycle. Her face displays a forlorn look of confusion as she sings ‘Whose House Is This?’, lost and searching for a place to call home. Showing off her range, her voice lingers somewhere between contralto and soprano, segueing into ‘I Am Not Seaworthy’ as her tone takes on a sad quality, lost and stranded.
Akiko Otao returns to complete Jonathan Shin’s Goh Poh Seng tribute, with ‘Bird with One Wing’. It’s clear that she’s a seasoned performer with the ease with which she sings, relaxed and in a dream-like state as she muses on the lyrics, almost like her spirit is coming to rest. Pianist Pauline’s role in this piece is integral, as she brings it to a grandeur end, and gives the persona a sense of renewed hope.
In Syafiqah Adha Sallehein’s Impian, inspired by the work of Mohamed Latiff Mohamed, Azura Farid draws us in with her subtle smile, singing confidently and with gusto, and we can see in her eyes how much she wants to do well. As much as it’s a tough piece for her, she still sees it through to the end, her facial expressions changing throughout as she puts her best foot forward she she represents and portrays her culture through this song.
In Chen Zhangyi’s ‘Songs For Mukul’, Moira Loh’s sustained notes ring pure and true in ‘I Possess No Address’, before she moves on to ‘I Will Be A Firefly’, allowing us to vividly imagine the scene of a single firefly going on a long journey, flitting around the space. By this time, she is fully in the zone as she ends off with ‘Golden Mother’, immersing us in the mood.
With Leslie Adams’ ‘Nightsongs’, Ng Jingyun starts off storng and goes right in with an unapologetic, punchy opener, with her energy and presence lights up the room. Turning our attention to Akiko Otao with Karim Al-zand’s ‘Then Finish The Last Song’ from ‘Tagore Love Songs’, she brings her performance to a poignant, powerful close.
It seems almost ironic how this edition of In Our Manner of Speaking concerns itself with issues of travel and movements when the pandemic has made that almost an impossibility. Yet it is through these songs that we remember the significance of these journeys and travels, and the people who make those expeditions for the betterment of their lives. All four singers return for the final number, with Phoon Yu’s new arrangement of Des’ree’s ‘I Ain’t Movin”, in a tribute to these tough times and difficult period we’re in. We remember and re-learn how to love ourselves, their voices distinct from each other’s, as we feel at home again in these ReClaimed Lands.
In Our Manner of Speaking: ReClaimed Lands played from 13th to 14th March 2021 at the Studio @ Wild Rice, with a video-on-demand version to be available at a later date.