Vocal excellence on display, even without a tenor.
Opera and vocal performances have been hit hard over the pandemic. It was a welcome return for the art form then, as we gathered at Victoria Concert Hall on a Sunday afternoon, the atmosphere buzzing as we awaited the debut of new company Lirica Arts with the cheekily-titled No Tenors Allowed.
Inspired by the eponymous concert series of opera duets for baritone and bass by opera superstars Thomas Hampson and Samuel Ramey in the 1990s, as well as Hwai Min Li’s 2019/2020 staging of “Everyone calls me Mimi”, No Tenors Allowed is exactly like its title suggests, turning the spotlight away from the tenor, instead to the baritone and soprano. Together, they present a series of situations of not just romantic love, but also of conspiracy, revenge, and other situations of heightened drama.
Featuring soprano Teng Xiang Ting and baritone Martin Ng, the show began with pianist Beatrice Lin in the spotlight, as she performed a no frills opening piano introduction. Setting the tone with a fast-paced tune, Martin arrives onstage with confidence and affirmation in his voice. He draws us into the first piece of the evening – the prologue from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, titled “The Clowns”. Even with just the two of them onstage, their presence filled the space, in part thanks to the lighting design and their movements. Gone are the days of standing beside a piano, as Martin sings true to the piece and captures its essence. Living in these times, his ability to bridge the gap between himself and the audience felt more poignant than ever.
With operas often sung in foreign languages, any context is always useful for audiences who have not studied the form, and for Lirica Arts, this was provided by Shridar Mani, as he came to explain each piece at every interval. In the next piece, the duet “Pronta io son!” from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, both Xiang Ting and Martin rush onstage. Martin ruffles through Xiang Ting’s bag as she sings, and the lighthearted performance then sees her put on a nun’s habit, showing how pure she is. Lirica Arts’ goal is always to spotlight the performers’ voices, and even with these comic moments, both singers’ enunciation and clarity is heard, loud and resonant. Both Xiang Ting and Martin also share strong chemistry, a trait that applies to the rest of the pieces throughout the evening as well.
Travelling from Rome to Paris in a seamless transition, Xiang Ting showcases her vocal control as she effortlessly transports us to these exotic cities in ‘Pura siccome un’angelo’, from Verdi’s La Traviata. She clearly takes the lead in this piece, as she focuses her energy on telling the story and narrative behind the piece, imbuing it with emotions that translate to the audience. Never do the two singers feel like they are competing, instead, their voices complement and bring out the best in each other. Even the choreography and movement, while seemingly simple, contain subtle nuances that bring out each note and lyric’s underlying meaning and intent. As they approach the end of the piece, they shift from singing to speaking, the sudden shift reminding us of the importance of story in opera, a quiet but dramatic finale to the number.
Even during the intermission, Lirica keeps audiences engaged, with an opera quiz led by Shridar, priming us for the pieces that would be performed when they resumed. Right after intermission, we’re treated to ‘Dunque io son, tu non m’inganni?’ from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, a playful song that brings out the best in them, where we witnessed both singers’ range, achieving what they set out to do with the piece, and evoking rapturous applause from the audience.
There is evidently a lot of effort that goes into the production, not only from the choreography in each piece, but also the fact that there is a costume change for each and every song. Both Martin and Xiang Ting carry themselves well, always presenting their voice at their best, and showcasing a high standard in terms of operatic expectations. All of this comes to a climax as the evening ends off with ‘Tutte le feste al tempop…Si vendetta’ from Verdi’s Rigoletto, a song that encapsulates each of their personalities and plays to their strengths. Showing off their prowess and control, we see how even without a tenor, a baritone and soprano are strong enough on their own, supporting each other with their contrasting vocals, their energy uplifting each other every minute.
Lirica Arts finishes on a high note, and goes back to the roots of the company’s origins – friendship between both singers, and the camaraderie shared with the rest of the creatives involved. Certainly, it bodes well for the company’s future that they’ve overcome the many challenges the year has posed, and come through with a rousing performance that firmly establishes themselves as a bold new voice in the operatic scene.
No Tenors Allowed 2.0 played on 19th September 2021 at Victoria Concert Hall.