A Bland But Wholesome And Morally Correct Music Fable

“Once upon time, Kingdom Earth was beautiful and joyful place with noble emperor on the throne. Until Evil descended…”

So begins the narrative, read by Liau Siau Suan, who also sings a rich baritone as The Emperor. In Chinese the character for “emperor” consists of three horizontal lines connected by a single vertical stroke, representing the axis of divine authority, the pillar of righteousness that upholds the delicate balance between earth, humanity, and heaven. When the central axis weakens, the cosmos is subject to decadence and decay, and Kingdom Earth forfeits its paradise status.

With Liau as Emperor, it’s easy to see how Evil managed to gatecrash the party and take over, wielding only a stalk of grain. So trusting is the Emperor that he falls for old fairytale tricks like phony crones hawking poisoned peaches. Of course, it’s only Evil in another clever disguise, causing the Emperor to succumb to an impotent swoon. A desperate pall hangs over Kingdom Earth, while the Emperor’s Lady (sensitively brought to life by soprano Phoon Sook Peng) looks on helplessly and sings plaintive laments.

Divine intervention occurs in the form of a soprano Angel, luminously portrayed by the Penang State Choir’s Tan Soo Suan. Phoon and Tan were in superb voice and sounded heavenly, though the melodies they sang occasionally verged on pure schmaltz, like some species of celestial karaoke or the Chinese cousin of Kitaro- inspired New Age muzak. It was nevertheless a moving and refreshing experience to hear such heavenly strains performed so precisely and with such absolute capability by a live orchestra.

As usual, Evil has all the best moves, and dancer/choreographer Lee Swee Keong was in fine demonic form as the catalyst of catastrophe and the prime cause of humanity’s ongoing drama of duality. The elegant and eloquent musical arrangements by Loo Fang Ying (loosely adapted from Teresa Teng’s popular renditions of classical poems from the Tang and Song Dynasties) never quite attained the diabolical verve required to stir the blood. (The Dama Orchestra would have done well to give a good listen to Igor Stravinsky’s quirky but irreSistibly dynamic “Triumphal Dance of the Devil” from The Soldier’S Tale.)

Predictably, Evil’s entrances were marked by a red infernal glow; but apart from the dramatic cliches, Mac Chan’s lighting effectively created a spectacular and other-worldly ambience. The costumes, designed by Datin Susan Lai, were precious indeed but the exclusive use of white made the Angel and the Lady look like abductees from a wedding party.

While the songs were mellifluous to a fault and exquisitely rendered (with the aid of radio mikes cleverly concealed in the performers’ hair), they were detrimental to the dramatic flow, slowing the pace down to almost the point of ennui.

Having inserted a few critical remarks, I must confess that I found the production on the whole to be tremendously uplifting and morally relevant, particularly in these apocalyptic times of ever worsening human crises. The simple storyline contained a profound spiritual message of courage and faith, gently reminding us that we are never alone, for succour from celestial realms is always close at hand. Particularly significant was the revelation, at the grand finale, that Evil was actually just the earthly manifestation of the Angel’s pet monkey out on a mischievous lark. Is there perhaps some hidden commentary on regressive simian genes as the root cause of human malevolence?

This essential notion carries more truth than might convince a worldly-wise cynic, but the main weakness of the entire musical fable concept was that the musical element eclipsed the dramaturgical to the extent the narrative became overly bland, much like serving plain oatmeal to children raised on KFC and spicy dried sotong. Imperial Garden was indeed an ambitious undertaking by the disciplined and dedicated Dama Orchestra, led by the noble and talented Khor Seng Chew, under the artistic direction of Pun Kai Loon, another utterly decent and admirable person.

Perhaps therein lies the problem: In The Imperial Garden tried too hard to be universally acceptable. It was morally correct but artistically a bit too tame for my taste. Pardon my perversity, but I found myself wishing for a wee dash of humour and some outright naughtiness in the proceedings; in other words, alittle salt and pepper would have made the meal taste better.

I know it was all meant as poetic allegory and interpretative dance (it was, after all, billed as a fable) but the symbolic battle between Good and Evil is the basis of all human drama. How thrilling can it be to watch the Emperor duel Evil to the death using his royal sash as a whip? What carnage and ruin can Evil wreak with what looked to me like a Iidi broom? Much as I appreciated the message of the show, I felt it was about as life- changing as a Sunday School skit (though I hope to heaven that I’m totally wrong about this, and that even as I type these words, Evil has reverted to being just a naughty pet monkey and has finally been put on a sturdy leash).

However, what came through distinctly was the commitment, sincerity, and wonderful spirit of the musicians and the actors. And speaking of spirit, was it a mere coincidence that I caught the show on the night it was sponsored by Guinness Anchor? Lets drink to more corporate sponsorship of the arts. The Dama Orchestra, inaugurated in 1994, undoubtedly deserves every bit of support it has earned and more. I propose a toast to their indomitable and competent spirit. Yam SengI

First published on Kakiseni on 11.09.2002

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