By Lisa Ho
Most people know that an opera “ain’t over till the fat lady sings”. Originating from a reference to Wagner’s Brunhilde singing the “Fire Song”, the sight of a shrieking fat lady in a steel bra and war helmet seems to be the accepted image of divas who sing in fat, polished tones but have less than impeccable manners.
The Diva! concert poster for the one-day-only recital of the 18th of June 2006 shows a lady in a shapeless, flowing robe entwined by long, thorny stalks of roses. The poster promises gasping excitement of flashing temperament in the shape of three renowned divas and one crackling accompanist.
To get a better view, I moved several rows to the front of the KL & Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall right beside one of the air conditioners that insisted on droning tunelessly. The organisers sensibly shut it down, but not before one half of the programme had already been sung. While waiting for the recital to start, I noted that Toh Puan Ena Ling and some other prominent Chinese business personalities were also present. In fact, the audience was so predominantly Chinese that the MC made his announcements and speeches in both Mandarin and English.
Initially, when the recital began, I was a little disappointed. First of all, there were no fat ladies at the Diva! concert. There were three well-endowed divas in flattering dresses who sang an extremely well-tempered performance without all the bad-tempered behaviour associated with divas. Then the accompanist was tall and thin as a rake. He made up for his lack of bulk with sensitive and clever piano-playing, and also by wearing a horrendous yellow shirt with his tails. The surprise element was a handsome diva with a superb tenor voice who flitted in and out to sing love and death duets with at least two of the divas. By the time the concert ended, I decided that it was one of the best singing concerts I have watched so far this year.
Jessica Chen, Nancy Yuen and Cecilia Yap were the three darling sopranos at the Diva! concert. They were more than competently accompanied on the piano by Chong Kok-Ting. Armando Chin Yong, the tenor, lent an air of drama with his powerful singing and was particularly moving in the encore piece “Che gelida manina”.
The first piece in the recital was “Dich, teure Halle” (You, lovely hall), a Wagner aria from Tannhäuser about a nice, big hall. This aria was performed by Jessica Chen from Taiwan, and was peculiarly appropriate as a kind of subtle dedication to the Chinese Assembly Hall and for its availability as a performance venue of classical concerts. In fact, the MC was full of praise for the hall and its acoustics (for which I disagree with him on two points: noisy air conditioning and a closed renovated section upstairs that somewhat dampened the upper harmonics of the voices towards the back of the hall). Jessica sang it well, but I thought the piece would have been more appropriate, not as the opening number but, as the second piece on the programme. Her aria from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda — “Suicidio!” — was both heart-rending and beautifully balanced in emotional and dramatic intensity.
Jessica Chen also sang two Verdi arias from Aida that showcased her dramatic soprano voice. Her “O Patria Mia” (O My Homeland) was delivered very steadily and with power until the very last high note, when her voice wavered a little. This break in the magic spell of her voice was due to, I believe, a break in her concentration when a mobile phone went off in the audience at that crucial moment. Although the opprobrium that rippled across the hall was barely spoken, its annoyance was generally felt because the sacred moment of the piece had been desecrated. The death duet, “O Terra, Adio” (O Earth, Farewell) which Jessica sang with Armando Chin Yong was touching; the scene was made even more tragic with their elegant and controlled portrayal of the Ethiopian princess and her Egyptian commander, both about to die buried alive.
Originally from Hong Kong, Nancy Yuen now lives in Singapore and has an enigmatic look on her face, not unlike a Singapore Girl airlines advertisement. Her voice was velvet, rich and bright. The audience roared in approval when she finished “Song to the Moon” from Dvorak’s Rusalka. What I really liked about the singing of this aria was the perfect control Nancy had on the high B-flat note that soared with dramatic intensity and yet, had a quality of incandescence about it. In lesser singers, this note is normally problematic as its descent requires technical mastery. The accompaniment by Kok-Ting was remarkably well paced and he played beautifully with a softness of touch that seemed to shimmer even as the last sung note disappeared.
Two middle-aged Chinese ladies giggled school-girlishly throughout the singing of the love duet “Viene la sera” (The Evening Comes) from Madama Butterfly while Nancy and Armando acted out the scene of Pinkerton and Butterfly’s wedding night. While the singing was gorgeous, my enjoyment of the aria was seriously marred by the nervous laughter and excited whispers of the two crones behind me. No amount of glaring from me or from the gentleman who sat beside me made them stop. I wondered if they were laughing in cathartic relief because they understood Italian and the full import of veiled irony in that aria, or laughing because they have never seen a love-scene on stage come so close to consummation, that crying would be unbearably prudish, or sterile.
As Butterfly, Nancy was demure, hesitant and shy. As Violetta in “Sempre Libera” of Verdi’s La Traviata (in which a courtesan resolves early in the opera to be “forever free” only to surrender to love in the next act), her singing was searing and almost wild. This was Nancy’s best aria in the recital. She sang with such ease and with a brilliance of tone that reverberated across the hall. Her mastery of all the intricate, swift passages with an extremely high tessitura distinguished her as prima donna of the evening. Her encore duet “Che gelida manina” (This little hand is frozen) from Pucinni’s La Bohème with Armando was a moment of pure musical delight, as both sang in measured passion which built up to a very moving climax. Armando sang best of all when paired with Nancy.
“Merce, dilette amiche” (Thank you, dear friends) from I Vespri Sicilianni by Verdi was a coloratura aria that was sung with great technical surety by Malaysian, Cecilia Yap who was in her element that evening. I felt that the quality of her voice was a little too bronze and heavy but there was no doubt about the vocal mastery with which she handled all the melismatic runs in the highly acrobatic piece. However, her best piece was the duet with Jessica Chen at the end of the recital. The very difficult duet “Morta al mondo e morta al trono” (Dead to the world and dead to the throne) from Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda (which was banned back then for depiction of royalty on stage) saw Cecilia as Queen Mary Stuart of Scotland and Jessica Chen as Queen Elizabeth in a spat of gargantuan proportions over a man. In this grueling duel of a duet, Cecilia sang and acted with flashing fury against the cold and calculating Jessica. The singing by both singers was filled with heightened tension, and only with a sure vocal technique could this demanding piece be performed with credibility. I felt that Cecilia did remarkably well in the singing of this piece, and when she had to sing a segment of “Vissi d’arte” (I lived for art) from Puccini’s Tosca as part of her encore, her voice soar with such beauty and power, that I felt it was a shame that she did not sing the whole aria as part of the recital.
There was a lot of clapping at the end of the performance. Many in the audience stood up, yelling their approval of the concert. There were many, many flowers too, and in an almost operatically absurd way, even the MC joyfully received a bouquet of flowers for himself. Chong Kok-Ting, the accompanist deserved the accolades he received that evening for ensuring a platform of performance for operatic and classical through his organisation, Artists Platform. Armando Chin Yong, Malaysia’s best operatic tenor, gave very elegant and beautifully interpreted performances of the duets he sang with the sopranos, never overshadowing them, as this was the divas’ show.
When will these singers be asked to perform at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra?
Lisa Ho is back!
First Published: 04.07.2006 on Kakiseni