Project Runaway

M! The Opera, staged at Istana Budaya from Thu 23 Mar to Sun 2 Apr 2006, is arguably the most ambitious and esoteric piece of music theatre ever conceived and produced in Malaysia. I’m awed by Saidah Rastam’s perseverance and stamina, and gratified that after such a protracted incubation, her monumental vision has finally materialised. She was aided and abetted by a handful of doggedly dedicated, competent, and resourceful individuals, with whom she was able to share her grand vision, and without whom the show simply wouldn’t have happened. Saidah was fortunate, too, to have found herself a cast and technical crew whose epic enthusiasm, talent, and passion went beyond the routine call of professional duty.

It was a VERY expensive production, of course, approaching two million ringgit, and the fact that so many corporate sponsors – with YTL leading the way – dug deep into their pockets to support the show augurs well for their commitment to nurturing the performing arts in Malaysia.

For this we have the late Datin Paduka Sri Endon Mahmood to thank. As the wife of the prime minister, Kak Endon invested a great deal of effort in encouraging artistic development. Now her daughter, Nori Abdullah, has taken on this important role as Chairman of Yayasan Budi Penyayang Malaysia, the foundation her well-beloved and much-missed mother established, to nurture a love of aesthetics and culture. Another positive factor has been the pro-active stance taken by the present Minister of Culture, Arts and Heritage, Datuk Seri Utama Dr Rais Yatim, whose tenure has seen a vibrant burgeoning of government-supported artistic endeavours.

Having declared my fond appreciation of this bold and groundbreaking enterprise, it might seem petty to mention the production’s shortcomings, rather than emphasise its glorious accomplishments. However, it would be remiss of me to gloss over problematic areas, so I’ll attend to that and get it over with, in the hope that future stagings of M! The Opera will benefit from some honest feedback.

While it’s true that the music is by far the most important element in any operatic work, it also helps to have a well-defined story and memorable characters. If Jit Murad (a truly fine wordsmith, though famously fragile) had maintained his focus as librettist, the dramatic flow of M! The Opera might have attained greater cohesion and conviction. But Jit apparently ran out of steam along the way, leaving the task of shaping the libretto to director/dramaturg Jo Kukathas and actor/singer Khir Rahman. Scripts written by committee rarely work, no matter how expert the members may be. What transpired in the end was that the chief protagonist, M the “iconic, enigmatic” fashion designer, was insufficiently developed as a character – while his antagonist, the murderously competitive Kerabat, had all the powerful moves as the “villain of the piece.”

And thus Singaporean actor George Chan’s Kerabat stole the thunder from Khir Rahman’s M – and, despite the latter’s large reserves of charisma and talent, he was left grappling with the mere myth of M rather than the man. Khir acted and sang and postured superbly, but we felt little for M and his trials and tribulations as an overnight sensation in the fickle world of haute couture. When M pricks his finger on the talismanic needle, we half expect him to fall into a hundred-year catatonia… but, instead, he winds up poisoned by his wedding outfit (presented by Guess Who). Sepi, M’s hapless bride and lifelong muse, was remarkable in her operatic expression of grief – but few in the audience felt anything but relief that the melodrama was finally over. I don’t know if it’s possible at this stage to alter the libretto, but the fit isn’t quite perfect between the sublimity of the score and the banality of the plot.

The tenuous dramatic thread that held the show together was kept from snapping by the wonderful quality of singing and dancing throughout. Doreen Tang, as Sepi, was particularly impressive, proving conclusively that we have world-class opera singers in our midst. Paula Malai Ali as Dominique Soong was a real pleasure to behold (in view of her long absence from the boards), and the child performers – Elyssa Murni Johari Azmi and Mohammad Taufik – easily won the audience’s hearts. Jo Kukathas’s staging was so kaleidoscopically kinetic, it was difficult to keep tabs on individual performers, but the energetic ensemble of veterans and newbies performed admirably, and I’m sure many of the cast will attest that being involved with M! The Opera has vastly upgraded their vocal and balletic skills.

Top kudos to music directors Ahmad Muriz Che Rose and Roland Peelman (artistic director of the prestigious Song Company of Australia, whose collaboration was facilitated by the Australian High Commission), and to choreographer Judimar Hernandez, who did a superlative job – as did the 43-piece orchestra (featuring the venerable Michael Veerapen on jazz piano) – in bringing to life the dynamic intensity and dense complexity of Saidah Rastam’s quirkily ingenious and sophisticated score. Fluidly blending six disparate musical modalities – 1960s Malay pop, Broadway, contemporary jazz fusion, courtly nobat, shamanic percussion, and polytonal dissonances (inspired by the neoclassical symphonic avant-garde) – Saidah has ventured further from the musical mainstream than any other Malaysian composer, with idiosyncratic bravado and classy flair. Her work would stand out anywhere in the world, and it has.

However, a comment I heard afterwards – and which I feel has some validity – is that the score was too heavyweight for such a featherweight dramatic concept. The audience was well forewarned: the fact that they were attending an OPERA, not a musical, was clearly advertised in the title of the work itself. In this instance one can’t simply sit back, relax, and enjoy the show; one has to pay close attention in order to derive aesthetic satisfaction. And even so, one is unlikely to be heard humming any of the tunes at the end of the show.

As pure spectacle, M! The Opera presented a phantasmagoric parade of fabulous costumes designed by top names in fashion (including Bernard Chandran, Bill Keith, Raymond Jolly, Tom Abang Saufi, Nazleen Noor, and Wan Huzairil), all tastefully coordinated by Dominique Devorsine. The simple but stunning set, brainchild of Goh Boon Teck (artistic director of Singapore’s Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble), was sensitively illuminated by freelance lighting designer Dorothy P’ng, also from Singapore. They were ably aided by the ubiquitous Mac Chan who served as technical director.

I believe we may have finally arrived at the point where it’s no longer something to crow about when all the races are able to set differences aside and put on a theatrical extravaganza of exportable quality. The fact that diverse talents from Malaysia, Australia, Singapore, New Caledonia, and Venezuela are collaborating to shape the further evolution of Malaysian culture and put it confidently on the world stage should also elicit no more than a vigorous nod of approval (why waste money on a full page ad?) but we are permitted a spontaneous whoop of triumph. And to witness the dramatic metamorphosis of a dear friend – from reluctant lawyer to impassioned composer of hybrid operas – is indeed a very special kind of joy. A champagne toast to the brave and beautiful cast and production team of M! The Opera. And especially to executive producer Sunita Rajakumar and producer Chacko Vadaketh: considering the arduous, potholed road the production had to travel, from its inception to the illustrious Istana Budaya, they have midwifed nothing less than a miracle, even if it still looks like a work-in-progress.

M! the Opera runs at Istana Budaya from Thu 23 Mar – Sun 2 Apr 2006. Tickets are practically sold out. However, extra shows have been made available.

First Published: 28.03.2006 on Kakiseni

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