Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Chat With Steven Ang of The Mad Scene Blog

Being a smorg, I've had the luck to (sort of) meet many wonderfully interesting people via the Internet. One of them is Steven Ang, the Singaporean opera singer/student and writer whose Mad Scene Blog is an ideal source of information on the Singaporean opera scene. I first encountered Steven and his blog in September 2008 while researching opera companies in unlikely places (like in Southeast Asia). I found a few, though none were as co-operative in providing me with up to date information about their company as the Singapore Lyric Opera was.

Being a typical smorg, however, I looked around for collaborating thoughts from non-official sources as well and was completely delighted when Steven agreed to provide a view of the SLO from the audience's side of the orchestra pit. Our collaboration resulted in this 2008 profile of the Singapore Lyric Opera posted at And so you can probably imagine how thrilled I was to get to interview Steven Ang again, two years later, on the 3rd anniversary of his endlessly fascinating Mad Scene Blog:

2008 production of Turandot at the Singapore Lyric Opera (photo courtesy of the SLO)
Smorg: Steven! Your blog profile describes you as "a dramatic-spinto-lyrico-coloratura soprano trapped in a light baritone's body." Would you care to elaborate on that??

Steven Ang: Well I think that line is already pretty self-explanatory but sure! Its just that there are so many great roles that I would like to sing but they all happen to be in the Callas/Sutherland repertoire, which my voice is probably not suited for. Instead I have a baritone’s vocal range that is firmly stuck in the middle, neither high nor low. So there won’t be any stunning coloratura capped off with high e-flats coming from me anytime soon, neither should you be expecting 9 high Cs nor Sarastro’s spacious low Fs. 

But I suppose its not that bad 'cause there are benefits that come with being a baritone, mostly that we seem to have a longer shelf-life: look at it this way: Pavarotti may have passed away, but his baritone colleagues such as Leo Nucci, Ruggiero Raimondi and Renato Bruson are still singing and making records with sopranos young enough to be their daughters; even Domingo’s switching to baritone repertoire!

Smorg: Tell us the truth... in your most demented dreams, you know, the ones that hit you in the middle of the night after an ill-advised spree of bel canto music binge, who appears in the dream as the bloody Lucia (and who is Edgardo)?

SA: No one in particular really because if I have the right voice, I can easily out-sing all of them. I will be madder than a mad cow, and my high stunning high e-flats will stronger than Sutherland’s, brighter than Gruberova’s and shriekier than Dessay’s.

You see this is what I mean by being a dramatic-spinto-lyrico-coloratura soprano trapped in a light baritone's body! I would so love to run around an opera stage singing a mad scene, but alas there are no high e-flats in my range, so what can I do? *shrugs*

Smorg: What keeps you going writing opera blogs and interviews? 

SA: Well Singapore does not really have a big opera or classical music scene although it's growing at quite an exciting pace now, and certainly no magazines for classical music and opera. I used to read quite a few entertainment magazines when I was younger, and thought about how great it would be if there is something similar in the classical music area, where we can read about the personalities who are producing our concerts. The idea of creating an entertainment e-zine about opera and classical singers in Singapore thus took hold.

Ultimately, I want to create something that can be a central news source for the vocal music community. So many times I’ve asked a friend if he attended a particular concert, only to be told that he hasn’t heard of it, or that I’d learn about a performance by reading a review after its over. So I hope that The Mad Scene has helped in some ways to promote our events to audiences who also love this art form. That vocalists can now find an avenue to reach out to their target audience.

Smorg: What most earth-shattering thing have you learned studying voice at Soochow University in Taiwan so far?

SA: One of the school’s senior staff once told me that there are many vocal students who are only here because they are not good enough to join the piano department. That was quite a shock to me! Thing is, the general impression is that most singers only start training in their teenage years, so the admission standards for voice is generally lower than the instrumentalists. But I am so fascinated by the human voice and all these great musical works written for them, that I can’t imagine anyone would want to do this because they have no other choice. Hopefully these students will be convinced of the beauty of our natural instrument and would aspire to sing even after graduation.

Smorg: You have seen almost every angle of the opera business by now. Is there any myth about this world/art form that you particularly want to see on the Operatic Myth Extinction List?

SA: I’m not sure if I have seen “almost every angle”, but I guess I’ve seen quite a lot in my capacity as both a performer and writer. But then I don’t claim to be a voice expert in any form, just an enthusiastic listener.

One myth I’d like to see go away is the common conception of how a particular voice is only suited to a particular style of music. You know the one where people decide upon a few recordings that a particular voice is not suited to a particular role because it is too high/too low/too dramatic/too much coloratura/not the right style, etc. I’d rather not be so adamant to cast a singer in a particular mould, but to let him or her explore the possibilities of his voice and convince me of it. We should also consider the context of the performance: is it a student or professional gig, piano or orchestra accompaniment, size of hall, etc. Of course a teacher has a responsibility to guide the student in repertoire that is healthy for his or her voice, but as audiences let’s keep an open mind and let the singers show us what they can do.

We should also consider that many singers have created their legend in roles people thought they had no business singing. Waltraud Meier’s Isolde is a good example, as is Shirley Verrett’s venture into soprano rep starting with Lady Macbeth. In our own time, Domingo has sung everything from Count Almaviva’s coloratura in “Barbiere” to baritone roles like Rigoletto. Let’s give these professional performers the benefit of the doubt and trust that they know what is good for their voices.

Smorg: What do you think about the prospect of opera in the mainstream entertainment forums... like reality television shows or cross-over talents contests?

SA: You know I came across this wonderful Canadian TV series on YouTube called “Bathroom Divas”, an America’s Next Top Model style competition where 6 amateur singers are picked from auditions. They get to go through professional training including weekly challenges where one contestant will be eliminated, and the eventual winner will get to sing an aria with the Vancouver Symphony. Unfortunately YouTube carries only a short clip from each episode (which is all I’ve seen) but it sounds like an exciting program huh! You can catch the clip of season 2, 1st episode here:

But yeah wouldn’t it be fun to have an idol competition of sorts, with a panel of retired opera personalities as judges? I can imagine Renata Scotto playing mother hen to the contestants, while Franco Zeffirelli makes bitchy remarks about how they are too fat or too old. Guest judge Natalie Dessay can impart the finer points of hyperkinetically rolling on the floor (i.e. “acting”) while Renee Fleming can share tips on how to land that elusive fragrance deal. 

Smorg: You cover the seemingly fertile new (and fast growing) ground in the operatic world, the Asian opera companies. Are you seeing local Asian talents being sufficiently nurtured toward international careers? Is there good support for Asian opera singers in place now?

SA: Well opera is not an Asian art form and I don’t want to give the impression that our scene is anything like those in Europe and America, where top houses stage performances all-year round. We simply don’t have the audience to support that many performances. Our companies here basically scrap together enough funding for about 2 or 3 productions a year and a few recitals and gala concerts.

However with education and outreach efforts, now aided by the internet, the people here are becoming more sophisticated and so audiences are growing. Still opportunities for young singers to gain operatic experience are small, and many serious students still have to do an educational stint in America or Europe to gain any significant professional experience in this most complicated art form.

I have a theory that because classical music is such a universal art form, the symphony first, followed by the opera, are kind of like a status symbol of a particular city’s success (with ballet perhaps being a 3rd status symbol), much like how a successful person would wear a Rolex and carry LV bags to reflect his status. Here is Singapore we have a very successful symphony orchestra, which our government has spent a lot of money to build. Now that our economy is supposedly back on track from the recession, perhaps more support can be given to our opera company, so that we can be seen as a more global city in the eyes of the rest of the world.
Nancy Yuen as Antonia in Les contes d'Hoffmann
Here’s another observation I’ve had: as the Regieteater craze is storming European and increasingly American house these days, it seems that the only place left where one can still catch a traditional production of standard repertory is in Asia. No dancing bumblebees or singers crawling out of giant female body parts for us! Because it’s still such a new thing here, there aren’t as many complaints about our company staging standard repertory such as “La Traviata” or “Carmen”, 'cause we are not that sick of them yet. So there is less need to improvise on stagings. Just fill the stage with the best singers you can find, with sets that are pleasant looking and makes sense to the plot, and we are good to go!
Smorg: Any particular Asian opera singers you think the Western operatic world ought to look out for in the near future?

SA: There are quite a few Asian singers who have performed quite a lot. I can’t really recommend any young singers unfortunately because, as stated earlier, the promising ones are already honing their craft in the States or Europe, so perhaps YOU can do a better job at that :p

Of the stars in these parts, Nancy Yuen has played numerous leading roles in the region, making her one of the true opera stars to be based in these parts. She is a lyrico-spinto soprano with a bright head voice that floats and penetrates with a well-honed technique.
Chu Tai Li as Bellini's Norma
Having moved to Taipei recently, I was really moved by performances of soprano Chu Tai-Li, their prima donna who was trained in Italy since 11. She’s in her 60s now and has recently recovered from a serious battle with cancer, so the voice can sound rather worn although its still an instrument of considerable range and colours. Rather, one is simply moved by the intensity and sincerity of her performances. At the end of her big aria it looked and sounded as though she has just given us every drop of emotion in her body, but after a short break she’ll return looking completely refreshed and ready to bare her entire soul again. This kind of honesty and commitment is so hard to find these days that even her former teacher Tito Gobbi compared her voice to one of his colleagues called “Maria”. I think even the most jaded of opera-goers will be moved by her performances.

To read more about Steven Ang and his operatic experiences, please visit The Mad Scene: The Singapore Opera Blog.


berenice said...

mister Smorg, i read this interview a while ago, but i couldn't comment 'cause it was at work ;) shhh don't tell my boss, heh heh... and yes!! isn't the internet a wonderful thing! soo cool that you were able to meet this extraordinary man with such a great taste of music just-like-you!! but on the other side of the world... your interview is very very interesting!

thank you for illuminating my life with all the knowledge you and Steven Ang share here.. and hey!!! now i want to watch the Bathroom Divas too!

Georg said...

Hi Smorgy,

Finally I read this fine article and then crossed over to Singapur to read a little about your opera friend.

He has certainly interesting things to say. But you should comment there from time to time. He would certainly appreciate.