Arts Review Singapore

★★★☆☆ Review: Telephones by New Opera Singapore

Twin operas about the telephone explore their impact on love and human relations.

These days, everyone has a smartphone in their pocket, a device we can’t possibly live without. And even though they’ve long moved past simply being a means to call, with a flurry of social media apps and rapid back and forth texting, they remain as integral and disruptive as they’ve ever been, and prime material for exploring the nature of human relation in art.

For New Opera Singapore, they’re celebrating the telephone with a double bill of work about these ubiquitous devices, each one examining our obsession with devices and a reminder for us to be present in the moments that matter. The double bill opened on a light note with Gian Carlo Menotti’s one-act comic opera The Telephone, which revolves around Lucy and Ben, a couple whose love affair is repeatedly thwarted by a telephone.

Playing Ben is Min Seong Kang, who comes out smiling and confident with a big diamond ring, beaming with pride and smiling in anticipation of the proposal. Moira Loh comes onstage in a blue lilac dress, and gets comfortable on the couch. But each time he’s about to pop the big question, the comically larger-than-life telephone just happens to ring, and puts the big ‘will they/won’t they’ on hold.

As a primarily dialogue-driven piece, The Telephone allows the performers to show off their versatility, singing these lines of dialogue well and putting their emotions fully into every line. Ben remains impatient as Lucy answers the call, and the two show off their great comic timing as each time she seems about to put down the phone and he gets his hopes up, she resumes the conversation, or moves on to the next phone call.

In every opera, music plays a big part and in The Telephone, the orchestra does an amazing job to be on time and on point in every song. Of note is how the phone also happens to be a vintage rotary phone, and each time Lucy spins the finger wheel, the orchestra reacts to each number dialled. Furthermore, elements such as the set are also well-designed. Built by RT+Q Architects, the set features two contrasting facades that represent both Ben and Laura onstage, and emphasises the absurdity of how the phone keeps them apart in spite of their physical closeness.

Eventually, Ben resorts to extreme solutions and brings out a ridiculously massive pair of scissors, ready to cut the phone cord. As the two sing together, there is good coordination while still dramatically showing off their individuality as performers and characters, and we realise how their voices complement each other so well, cementing them as strong casting choices. At the end of the day, we are left to ask ourselves – what is the point of a phone, aimed to bring people closer, yet ironically keeping them apart in The Telephone; it is only when Ben finds a new way into Laura’s heart that we see love conquers all, even a villainous telephone.

In the second half of the double bill, New Opera Singapore presents Francis Poulenc’s La voix humaine (The Human Voice). The piece features Victoria Songwei Lee as Elle, a woman who phones her former lover for the last time, the day before he marries another woman, and goes from tenderness to manic passion.

La voix humaine opens with a visual sequence, portraying the story of what we would see unfold before us. While the idea is a good one, it does drag somewhat. The piece also features a set change, going from The Telephone’s set to a half-mirror half-blank canvas, giving it the flexibility to show off certain elements of the piece. Victoria Songwei Lee starts off strong, but towards the middle begins to fade away, unable to emote as much and affected by the length of the piece taking its toll on her, but making a recovery towards the end to finish on a strong note. Once again, the orchestra was in a league of its own, crisp, confident and thoughtful in their rendition.

While it’s clear that New Opera Singapore knew what they wanted to do by thematically linking both pieces by way of the telephone, it did feel like there was some disjoint and lack of cohesion between both pieces. The set could also have been better integrated into the performance, with there was some drag in the pacing. Certainly, it was easier to open on a light note and getting people to laugh with a comic piece, but that would then mean a much bigger change in the second half, to get audience members to calm down and feel sad in La voix humaine. Certainly, after the years spent in a pandemic, this double bill leaves us thinking about the way we communicate, and how that has changed come 2022 – perhaps after realising how important connection and community is, we will finally dedicate time for the ones we love and cherish, instead of reverting back to the old ways of communicating purely on the phone.

Telephones played from 19th to 21st August 2022 at Victoria Theatre.

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