But seriously, how was the show last night?
Really rather good. Much better than I’d expected. Even Mohan liked it – his eyes were fixed on the performers all night as they accompanied their arias with acrobatic attitudes.
I’ve had a checkered history with Chinese opera myself, from rollin’ good times with Thau Yong Amateur Musical Association and kickass showcases by Ming Hwa Yuan Taiwanese Opera Company to underwhelming extravaganzas by Jiangsu Province Kunqu Opera and torture sessions with Chinese Theatre Circle. I’ve realised my appreciation of the art isn’t just based on excellence but also on charm: I’m actually less likely to enjoy the show when the actors pompously regard themselves as the last noble defenders of the tradition. What I want is to have fun, godammit.
And fun is precisely what Nanning Cantonese Opera Troupe delivers in “Mulian Zeng Jiu Mu” (“Monk Mulian Rescues His Mother”). The singing really is superb, from Liu’s passionate pleas for mercy to the seductive plaints of the village girl and her mother to the bellowing of the gods. Plus, I’m entranced by the sheer imagination of the tale – red-haired demons, monks riding tigers, a woman sentenced to take the shape of a black dog, dream messengers with the clothes of a lotus, ghosts writing in ash, instant flashbacks in which multiple players depict Liu at every stage of her motherhood.
I’m also in love with the little imperfections of the show: as Liu’s soul is tortured by the demons, her water sleeve gets caught on her headdress; one of the monks loses his grip on another monk’s belt during a minor gymnastic display.
It makes us laugh, it reassures us that we’re in the company of mortals. (Odd to say this in a tradition in which actors more or less become the gods – when Kuan Yin comes out and sprinkles water on us at the end, it’s an authentic blessing.)
Of course, there’s fine comic acting on purpose: a rather absurd Taoist priest performing funeral rituals, the doddery Grandmother Meng attempting to pour the tea forgetfulness into the mouths of dead souls (only to have Liu spit it out into her face), a court of hell in which souls and demons are forbidden to speak (and thus have to produce scrolls with their dialogue printed on it – professional business cards, said one of the guys behind me).
There’s hyuks to be had even from the hapless hero Mulian himself. He’s unable to decide whether to carry his mother’s portrait ahead of the Buddhist sutras, and has to escape the dangers of tigers and spear-wielding maidens in pink.
And I haven’t even got to the gymnastics yet. Sure, there’s the wiry Shaolin monks using their bodies as human Lego blocks (out, unseemly thoughts!), but one of the actresses playing Liu Qingti can also do splits! Standing and sitting! Gnarly, innit?
Yes, yes: there are bits which drag – Mulian spends entirely too much time on the way to the Western Monastery, trying to finagle his way out of having hot sex with pretty girls and helping old men in the street (I never did see how that bit turned out, ‘cos I went to the toilet then). The resolution also takes an unreasonable length of time – wandering through nine courts of hell is boring unless you’ve got fantastically varied costumes and set changes for each of them; the histrionic confrontation between Liu and her son makes no sense; most of the final acrobatics bear very little relation to the plot.
One can see why Goh Boon Teck recrafted the legend the way he did in his recent production of “Maha Moggallana”: more centred on the character of Liu, it recognizes contemporary audiences’ desire for pathos and psychedelic visuals. But should I fault the Nanning troupe for being too faithful to the original texts? Probably not.
And as you can see, I actually would recommend that my fellow Anglophone theatregoers give these shows a chance. The Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre experience is quite, quite different from the Esplanade/Victoria Theatre/Drama Centre one; it’s an utterly different crowd, unfamiliar yet familiar – almost exotic: perhaps endotic is the proper term.
A few last assurances: if you passed Chinese AO-Levels, you should be able to follow the plot from reading the subtitles. You won’t understand everything, but you’ll recognize enough zi to figure out what’s going on, roughly 92.6% of the time. There is also an intermission, though you might have to wait a while for it to happen.
And if you think you don’t like Chinese opera because of the screaming and the ear-splitting dong dong chengs, you might be pleased to know that the orchestra is hidden away on a platform upstage, and somehow, their music fits – what sounds like discord on your grandma’s cassette tapes is perfect concord within a drama.
Plus, the orchestra members come out in uniform and bowing to us before the show starts. And the singers stand outside afterwards to give autographs. Classy. Yet real. 好酷.
Fyi, the schedule of the performances is/was:
Tuesday, 7:30pm: Lady Pingji’s Tribulations
Wednesday, 7:30pm: Monk Mulian Rescues His Mother
Thursday, 7:30pm: 三气周瑜, which my mum thinks means something to do with Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Friday, 7:30pm: Meeting at the West River
Saturday, 7:30pm: Tragedy of Love in the Palace
Sunday matinee: 折子戏, whatever that means…
Sunday, 7:30pm: Emperor Qianlong Appoints the Imperial Scholar
Call Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre for tickets.
My camera was in my jeans pocket all along! Yahweh was not trying to smite me for being a boycott violator!
Okay, here’s what happened: my Cantonese-speaking mother got diagnosed with appendicitis and couldn’t watch the show with me. So I had to bring my Tamil-speaking boyfriend instead.
The show for the evening was “Monk Mulian Rescues His Mother”, which is coincidentally the same legend as Toy Factory’s “Maha Moggallana”, performed last month on Vesak Day. (Fyi: I’m fully aware of the irony of abandoning my recuperating mother to watch an opera about filial piety.)
Anyway, after the 2hour 45min show, my boyfriend and I had supper in Chinatown, and I did a brief interview with him.
YS: So, how did you find the smash hit musical, “目连僧救母”?
Mohan: I don’t understand anything.
YS: Really? (I’m a little pissed because I spent the entire show whispering rough translations of the Mandarin subtitles in his ear)
Mohan: But I think it’s quite fun to watch. But I think the rest of the audience make it not fun to watch. Because they keep looking at me.
YS: Because you so handsome what.
(Uncomfortable pause. Earlier in the evening he’d complained that he felt like a tourist attraction.)
Mohan: And then I go toilet they were like, “Eh, got ah neh, got ah neh.”
YS: (balling up my fist) Wah lau, ai tio pah…
Mohan: You know last time when I was a kid ‘cos my grandma used to stay in HDB flat in Toa Payoh, and Toa Payoh is the oldest estate, so always got Chinese wayang. So I used to watch. And that time got Chinese people watch, Malay people watch, Indian people watch. So you stand there and watch, nobody stare at you. And now, only got Chinese people watch. And then I watch, no fun already.
(Another uncomfortable pause)
YS: Why was it fun to watch?
Mohan: Very funny what. They got the long sleeve and… Very entertaining. And the voice very high pitch. They always wear the hat, got a lot of things come out.
(The waitress arrives with the food)
P.S. My mum’s doing fine. Operation was a success. Don’t worry!
First of all: there was nothing “street” about at least one third of these acts.
Second of all: I very much doubt that government-funded arts festivals (or most art in general, for that matter) can result in a “revolution”.
In fact, the audience was pathetic. Most of us were so disoriented by the Victoria Theatre setting that we didn’t dare to even stand up and dance – people actually looked at me like I was crazy for jiggling around in my seat.
But I’ll give you guys the “jam” Co-sponsored by the Singapore Arts Festival and Arts Fest, this show featured a half-half mix of Singapore and international Southeast Asian artists.
Anyway, for an old 29 year-old fogey like me, it was an education into what young people here are creating for themselves musically (I mean, those young people who aren’t former Singapore Idol contestants and can’t become JJ Lin-esque Mandarin language singers).
(Yes, and I reserve the right to call myself old, despite the advertising that this event is for youth aged 14-39 – please sirs; I would like at least ten years when I can call myself unreservedly an adult before becoming middle-aged.)
act i: SIXX
Y’know, I like these guys. I wasn’t wholly convinced when they came on with their rather catchy number “Livin’ the Life Like It’s Golden”. After all, MC Kevin Lester has these weird dead-robot eyes and lead vocalist Aarika Lee hops around more like a sugar plum fairy than a b-girl.
But! Their music’s good – songs like “TSA” and “Rock Star” made me want to join the mosh pit, if only there’d been one – and whoever dressed them knew what s/he was doing: ironic sequined dress for Aarika, ironic necktie for Kevin, ironic bow tie and waistcoat for lead guitarist Kelvin Ang – plus the whole concept of the band; how it’s integrated across gender and ethnicity and keeps growing from its original six members – others on stage included keyboardist Hsu Xiao Hui, bassist Timothy Da Cotta, percussionist Mark Chan, guest percussionist Joe Salim, and I do not have the names of the guest saxophonist or trumpeter in the programme, but you guys upped the ante, seriously. Brass is boomz.
Oh, and they’re coming up with an EP soon. Buy it. Bonus points because during talkback with host Dany Jay Prakash, they seemed cool with people file-sharing their songs.
(And yes, they’re Singaporean. Majulah.)
act ii: Richard J
Celaka! This kid dares to call himself “street”? He’s less street than Justin Timberlake, for furikkake’s sake. He’s saccharine, that’s what he is: so commercial that he makes my teeth hurt.
Interestingly enough, I was seated behind a row of girls in black who were die-die-hard supporters of both Richard J and SLEEQ (more about them, later). Whenever anyone mentioned their names, they screamed their lungs out. Bising macam latah, tahukah?
So yes, he is “Singapore’s youngest talent extraordinaire” according to the programme notes: started composing at the age of 12, started performing in rap battles at 15, and now he’s 20 or something, no idea, still riding off his prettyboy looks (good sir, though you have nice eyes, you should get your teeth fixed).
And while I admire his “The show must go on” motto in the face of a sore throat or something, which meant that he had to sing in tenor against a backing track of his usual contralto (thank god we were spared that)…
I am nonetheless disgusted with anyone who creates a song that goes:
I wanna be a billionaire
on the cover of Forbes magazine
smiling next to Oprah and the Queen
Ugh. Ugh. And he’s so *American*. But he’s some people’s hero, and he also has an EP coming out, so you might want to buy him too, if only ironically.
This girl’s the real deal: hailing from Jakarta, she signed her first recording contract when she was 16 years old, and now she’s a college lecturer by day and a hiphop artiste by night.
Aarika, this is how a lady moves on stage: arms and legs pumping and thrusting, more Missy Elliot than Tinker Bell.
Baby girl, you lookin’ so fine,
Oh oh oh oh oh…
Big props to Puan Yacko (Y-A-C-K-O!) for daring to sing in Bahasa Indonesia as well: I think I liked those songs the best, maybe since I’m able to shut off my verbal critical functions and just groove to the beats. Definitely wanted to jump up and down with this one.
Okay, at the beginning at least. In later numbers you seemed to lose energy. Why? Can’t say for sure, but when you said you were impressed by Singapore audience’s reactions, I’m pretty sure you were fighting the urge to bite your tongue and go, “Wake up people! This is supposed to be a revolution! You have nothing to lose but your seats!”
Props to her co-emcee – Latto, I think his name was. Her album is called “Refleksi”.
Five-minute intermission now. Wah lau; this thing was supposed to end by 9:15. It’s the halfway mark and we’re past that point already.
As I said, these guys have a following similar to that of Richard J. I got a recording of the screaming girls this time:
I’m afraid to report that these guys are similarly infuriating – not quite as bad as Dick, but pretty bad. You, the one with specs – you do realize that although some of the girls scream every time you look over the rims of your glasses, the rest of us just lose respect for you for resorting to the same gimmick every time?
I seem to remember there was some reference to ‘NSync, which was probably meant ironically, but is not only dated but also revelatory of the indistinguishability of their styles. (Oh wait, ‘NSync actually danced.)
There was also a song I remember called “Keep Looking Over Your Shoulder”, but I forget what was memorable about it.
Sigh. Yeah, these boys are Singaporean too. They came off the stage and tried chatting to the girls in the middle of the show. The girls were speechless, probably because their voices were gone from screaming.
FTW! Malaysia boleh! DJ ALTIMET rocks – I was waving my hands in the air like I just didn’t care quite early into the set. He’s a one-man voice machine – though he occasionally had help from Singaporean artiste DJ Atrez. Really great fun.
He does have a rather old-fashioned gender bias, though – “This one’s for all the girls,” he sad, before belting out “Chantek”, and then “This one’s for all the boys who work hard to bring back money for your mothers,” – because clearly there are no beautiful boys or hardworking women who provide for their parents.
Oh but the song he sung for the boys was so great – “Syukur”, which means thank you (not in Malay but in Arabic, methinks); high-energy, invigorating, nourishing, spiritual. Damn, he was good.
Sadly, I don’t think audiences responded so well to songs with non-English lyrics. How come ah? Not MTV enough?
Okay, at this point our host MC Dany Prakash was really sick of us being so guai so he ordered us (with great difficulty) up onto the stage, because if you don’t get jiggy with the last dance, you don’t get jiggy ever.
So we ended up with a great mosh pit in front after all, and the members of this Thai group were throwing us T-shirts and CDs while we were jumping up and down…
Come to think of it, I can recall very little about the crew’s music, aside from the fact that it was utterly worthy of a fist-pumpin’ closing number. Can’t even remember if it was in Thai or garbled English.
What I do recall is that we ended at 10:55ish, which was NOT what I’d signed up for: the programme said 75 min, not 175 min. I ended up being ridiculously late for my Atsuhiro Ito show, and the Sistic guy had already gone home, so I acted cantankerous until they gave me an uncollected comp.
Final verdict? Can lah, can lah: the house was fairly full (although some people walked out as the night grew long), you’ve introduced some kids to Victoria Theatre who’d never have dared to step in otherwise, you’ve reconfigured the possible uses of Victoria Theatre as a venue for youth events, you’ve brought in a few regional artistes who’ve never been here before – never mind the sorry state of Singapore streetness, this event works.
Now, perhaps we could hold this event a little earlier in the calendar so the youth feel inspired to go for other Arts Fest events… or is it dependent on the June holidays? No? I’m sure we can figure it out.
Oh yeah: and can we throw at least one dance event in there next time? When you’ve got a photo of a dynamic dancer in the publicity and you get an all-singing lineup instead… Let’s shake it up a little. The Arts Fest can take it.