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In The Imperial Garden

  • By Myrddin Emrys
  • August 27, 2002

By Jess C.

You can always expect an element of innovation and surprise from Dama Orchestra. Whether it is ethnic and world music played by its six-piece Chinese orchestra or its well-loved theatrical presentation of Chinese golden oldies, Dama’s delightful showcases of high standard have never failed to attract audiences and rave reviews.

After quite a long break since its last production, Dama’s upcoming musical presentation, In The Imperial Garden, will break new grounds with its refreshing artistic concept that blends Chinese classical poetry with songs, dance and drama, all accompanied by new age musical arrangement.

This modern musical fable is inspired by the late Teresa Teng’s album on classical poems predominantly from the Tang and Song Dynasties. Dama Orchestra will play several evergreen hits from the album as well as other tunes in its inimitable style.

“We are excited by this brand-new attempt,” says Music Director Khor Seng Chew who admits having an affinity for Teng’s songs. “We are basing the piece of theatre on an undated time in Chinese history and we want to keep things more neutral in terms of costumes and music so that it is not typically Chinese.”

The musical takes on a familiar plot of good triumphing over evil, with four characters taking centre stage: Phoon Sook Peng (soprano) as the Lady, Tan Soo Suan (soprano) as the Angel, Liau Siau Suan (baritone) as the Emperor and dancer-choreographer Lee Swee Keong as The Evil.

The two-act musical begins with the premise that Kingdom Earth is all perfect and beautiful until The Evil comes to besiege it and turns it into darkness. The Emperor is put to eternal sleep and his concubine, the Lady, flees. The Angel, seeing this, descends from the moon and with her magic stalk brings back life to Earth. But The Evil continues to be disruptive and both the Emperor and the Lady fall for his evil scheme. The Angel returns and finally there is a climax that sees the two engaged in a fierce duel where The Evil is finally conquered.

Khor says he has given much thought in choosing the artistes with the right qualities to take on the respective roles.

“We picked Soo Suan to play the Angel because of her young and fresh image while Sook Peng is able to take on melancholic and more emotional numbers as the Lady. And Liau, with his strong baritone voice, is suitable as the Emperor.”

Lee meanwhile, has the only non-singing role. Khor feels they can rely on the dancer’s skillful and expressive body movements and gestures to depict the role of The Evil. Incidentally, Lee is known for his convincing and expressive interpretation of unconventional villain-like roles.

“I like to explore new frontiers in performing and this is something I’ve not attempted before. And this is also the first time I’m working with non-dancers.” says Lee. “A dance performance emphasises body forms and movement but for this musical, the story line is the main thing.”

Lee has been giving dancing lessons to the other three cast members. He feels being involved in such a production is a great opportunity to exchange artistic views with one another.

Playing this role is an accumulation of the past experiences Lee has had in performing arts. He was recently invited to participate in an International Artist Program in Seattle where he worked together with a musical composer.

The bubbly and amiable Tan Soo Suan is equally excited to be involved in the musical.

“This is a totally new feeling. I haven’t sung in a musical or new age music. And here, I finally have a brand-new image,” quips Tan, a vocal instructor from Penang who has been singing in a series of Chinese golden oldies concert with Dama.

She says playing the Angel will be a challenging role for her to portray. And although she will be singing Teresa Teng’s songs, she will not attempt to imitate the late singer but rather let her own character and style show forth.

There will be solos, duets and trios sung in Mandarin, while the introduction will be in English. In between there will be some instrumental interludes to showcase a nine-piece Dama orchestra – which has an additional keyboard and two more percussion instruments.

“You will be surprised as it will be a totally different sound from the Dama Orchestra you are familiar with,” says Khor who feels that although the songs are sung in Mandarin, it will still attract non-Chinese speaking audiences.

“In arts, language should not be a barrier but instead it should be a musical melody that transcends all culture,” Lee chips in. “So, the lyrics may be in Chinese, but it’s the entire presentation of the body movement and expressions that bring forth the message.”

Khor concurs. “Just like when you watch [one of] Puccini’s operas, you don’t need to understand the Italian lyrics but you will still be moved and even cry.”

He adds that In The Imperial Garden also has a cultural and educational aspect. Through the musical, Dama will introduce to the non-Chinese literate audience the beauty of poems and verses from the Tang and Song Dynasties, and at the same time, rekindle the love for this poetry among the Chinese educated.

Besides Khor, the key people behind the musical include artistic director Pun Kai Loon, who is responsible for the stage, props and artistic side of the production; concertmaster Gan Boon We, and Mac Chan, who is in charge of the lighting design.

Led by Khor, Dama Orchestra made its debut in 1994 with a sold-out concert entitled An Evening of Chinese Chamber Music in Kuala Lumpur. The orchestra is an exponent of traditional Chinese instruments but musically, it has ventured beyond the confines of traditional and classical Chinese music to explore other genres of music.

In 2000, Dama House at Plaza Putra opened as the centre of activities for the Dama Orchestra, and serves as the rehearsal venue for its musicians. Dama House has a CD Section selling a comprehensive range of classical, traditional, world and ethnic music. It also has a Music Resource Section that provides audio-visual­ textual music-referencing materials and a mini cafe that serves light refreshments.

Dama Orchestra has recorded two albums so far – Spring Kisses Lovers Tears taken from its successful concert of Chinese golden oldies; and Scent of Autumn Rain, a purely instrumental recording of much-loved golden oldies.

First Published: 27.08.2002 on Kakiseni