The Flying Dutchman: a Wagner First in Singapore

This review by London Wagner Society Sectetary Andrea Buchanan was published in the December 2016 edition of Wagner Notes, the website of New York Wagner Society. Thank you, New York Wagner Society President Nathalie Wagner and, Andrea Buchanan.




Principals: K. Parker, A. Hörl, O. Pushniak, J. Pustina. D. Ang, cond.; G. Goei and C. T. Chien, directors; M. Tan and Y. Zhiyin, costumes. Performances: October 23–30, 2016; Victoria Theatre.

Very few Wagner societies get involved in putting on operas – and with good reason. It requires a skill set and resources beyond the means of most music appreciation societies, not to mention a hefty commitment of the kind of time and energy that very few volunteer Wagnerians possess.

But here is the story of a very small (37 members), very young Wagner Society in Singapore who decided to make their own piece of Wagner history. Chairman Juliana Lim, with a back- ground in arts management, and Vice-Chairman Ronald Ling, a successful Singaporean businessman, resolved early in 2015 that they would introduce Wagner to their young and dynamic Southeast Asian country by staging one of the operas for the first time—in English—as a co- production between the Richard Wagner Association of Singapore (RWAS) and Opera Viva. Both were clear that they would aim high for a professional production with the best possible cast and creative team.

Much depended on finding the requisite financial support, and a successful application was made to the National Arts Council of Singapore for half the sum required. Boosted by additional support from the German Embassy, the Goethe Institute, and the Richard-Wagner- Verband International (RWVI), along with generous donations from individuals, the financial position was secured in late 2015.

It was decided early on that young, European- based artists would perform the four lead roles. The RWVI assisted with the casting, from recent winners and finalists from its International Singing Competition. Alessandra Althoff Pugliese, a Vice-President of the RWVI and President of the Venice Wagner Society, gave her time and expertise to coaching the singers, both in Europe and in Singapore. A second cast of Asian leads (to cover the roles and to give one performance) was also selected, and the chorus, orchestra, full creative and back- stage teams, along with the singers in the roles of Mary and the Steersman, were all selected and cast from Singaporean nationals and residents. This was an extraordinary effort—not just on the part of the local cast and creative team, but also from the large group of volunteers who organized and participated in several enterprising outreach events to publicize the opera and to further local awareness of Wagner and his works, and who were also invaluable in organizing and assisting with events and logistics during the period of the performances.

The RWAS had invited both Eva Wagner- Pasquier and RWVI President Horst Eggers to attend the premiere, thus ensuring the interest of the local press and endowing the project with a sparkle of Wagner celebrity. A few RWVI board members, a group of Finnish Wagnerians, a small contingent from Perth, and two members of the Wagner Gesellschaft Japan were also in attendance.

I have dwelled on this background more than would normally be acceptable for a review, as it was integral to the spirit of enthusiasm and commitment that carried this whole project for- ward and contributed significantly to the success of the opera. This was evidenced by aver- age audiences of over 90% of house capacity for the five performances, some excellent local reviews, and demonstrative appreciation from the audiences.

The opera had two directors, both of whom are well known in the Singapore performing arts world, although neither had ever tackled an opera before. UK-trained Glen Goei’s ability to

enthuse local audiences with his Asian perspective on many iconic works of Western drama was a natural starting point for this production. His co-director, Chong Tze Chien, an award- winning and published playwright and director, is also well known for his involvement with The Finger Players, whose puppetry skills featured prominently in the production. The music director was Maestro Darrell Ang, who trained both in Russia and at Yale, and now works both in Europe and in Singapore as Associate Conductor with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. This was his first Wagner opera.

From the beginning, the goal of the co-directors, in working with the design team, was for a production with an Asian aesthetic and informed by Asian insights, so The Flying Dutchman proved a natural choice. Ghosts and seafaring feature strongly in Singaporean myths and culture, and the Asian setting and styling for the opera thus seemed entirely appropriate. The directors also felt that the context of the post-colonial society of modern day Singapore lent itself well to this tale of a search for identity and salvation. The focus throughout was principally on Senta, the outsider in a mercenary community, whose strength and ultimately freedom come from her imagination and from her search for a more meaningful reality. The directors showed exemplary respect for the text, allowing the

power of the story to carry the show along. The visuals were striking and dramatic, aided by simple, flexible sets comprising platforms reminiscent of typical Kampung (Malay village) architecture and an outline wooden ship, along with dramatic color theming in both the lighting and the gorgeous yet quirky costumes (designed by acclaimed fashion team Max Tan and Yuan Zhiying). Innovative and effective use of Malaysian-style puppets and other shadow effects underscored the dream-like quality of the production, and provided a dramatic back-drop in various scenes.

On the whole the singing was very good. Young Berlin-based Australian soprano Kathleen Parker shone as a confident, vocally secure, and at times thrilling Senta. She is certainly one to watch for the future! Dutchman Oleksander Pushniak sang the role competently and with good color, while established German bass Andreas Hörl made an amusing and imposing Daland. Czech tenor Jakob Pustina performed Erik with enthusiasm. The thinness of the chorus was noticeable at times, but their occasional lack of vocal heft (there were only 25 singers) was compensated by their enthusiasm and evident relish in their roles, aided by the skillful chorus mastering of Albert Tay and the lively choreography of Khek Ah Hock Aaron.

My colleagues and I from the Wagner community loved the show and agreed that it was

worth crossing the oceans to be there. It reached our emotions and it moved us, as well as delighting the senses with exquisite visuals and glorious sounds. You can’t ask much more than that from any opera.


L. to r.: Oleksandr Pushniak (Dutchman), Andreas Hörl (Daland), Kathleen Parker (Senta).

Photo: Ngiap Heng Tan.


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