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28 May 2004

high on opiume

Fridae, speaks to renowned Singaporean composer, Mark Chan, about his contributions to Opiume, Checkpoint Theatre's offering at the Singapore Arts Festival 2004.

æ: Opiume is one of the three works commissioned by this year's Singapore Arts Festival for international collaboration and one of the two commissioned works based on historic events. Could you tell us more about the modern chamber opera that is Opiume?

Renowned Singaporean composer, Mark Chan
mark chan: Opiume is a modern chamber opera based loosely on the Opium Wars in the 18th to the 19th centuries. The Opium Wars came about when the British East India Company supplied (illegally) opium to China and then through superior military might forced China into a series of humiliating one-sided treaties which led to what China termed her 100 Years of Shame.

However, Opiume is NOT a narrative of these historical events although it does springboard and highlight similar issues: the clash and the attraction between different cultures, the problems of race relations, the seduction of the drug, the concept of "free" trade, the lure and dangers of addiction and, finally, the conflict and my search for a way forward!

For Opiume, I have kept the focus on two things: Firstly, what does it mean to me today? The mismatch between different cultures would be familiar to anyone, like myself, who is in or has been in a relationship with someone from a different culture, of a different country or skin colour. While it is easy to be attracted, the trick (and it's not easy) is making it work!

Secondly, I wanted to make a GREAT NIGHT OUT! I have made it a point to write back the melody into modern music. We have three wonderful singers, the amazing T'ang Quartet and five of the best musicians from Hong Kong and Singapore. I've written music and lyrics which are passionate, informed and sometimes, even controversial. The world on stage is both Modern (re: CNN) and Historical, clear and, yes, also "narcotic."

æ: In a recent news report, TheatreWorks' Artistic Director Ong Keng Seng mentioned that "the pains and gains (of the international collaboration game) are great." Could you share with us some of your more interesting experience while working with international artistes on Opiume?

mark chan: Well, I always find the collaboration with artistes from outside Singapore a joy and a pain. But much, much more a joy. It is part of my nature to always look beyond Singapore. To start from, yes! It is my home. But coming from a small country, I have from an early age been owned by a mega-wanderlust. So, it is natural process for me. Perhaps different from some theatre practitioners, the process is always a joy. Music also flows across boundaries a helluva lot easier than text and acting!

æ: You created the music and libretto for Opiume. Could you tell us more about your musical direction, style and influences for Opiume?

mark chan: Gosh! Come watch the show! But seriously, I have my own style. It is developing very strongly over the past four years on my return to more serious/ classical/ contemporary work. The music is strongly melodic but has a full range of dissonance and reinventions of harmony underneath those soaring melodic lines. It is complex but never over-intellectualised. I don't want to alienate the audience. I want to communicate. The lyrics are straightforward and poetic, distilled into powerful sayings and dangerous directness.

æ: After its Singapore run, Opiume will be heading to Hong Kong in November for the New Vision Arts Festival. How do you think the Hong Kong audience will react to Opiume especially when the Opium War resulted in the loss of Chinese sovereignty and the establishment of British rule over the former colony?

mark chan: Opiume is the first opera of any form commissioned by the Singapore Arts Festival. And it appears that many people are looking forward to it! In Hong Kong, the two Arts Festivals there have previously commissioned modern chamber operas and they've been slightly burned by the audience reactions to them. Perhaps the operas were over-intellectualised and the music lost the audience (I don't know). With Opiume, I've made a point to make music and lyrics that are deep, intelligent and yet, as the same time, moving, emotional and enjoyable. I think Hong Kong will love it.

æ: On a final note, the promotional text for Opiume described the opera as dealing with, amongst other issues, "private passions" and "erotic pleasures." Could you titillate our readers by elaborating on those?

mark chan: (laughs) I can't give it all away! I'll just end with saying that many people who won't normally like opera or modern contemporary music will find this a breath of fresh air and will enjoy it. I also think there are moments of intense beauty and pathos. And that, in some way, Opiume will contribute to that body of art that lets the audience into some of the secrets which govern our lives.

æ: Thank you for your time and best of luck for Opiume!

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