Chan Tze Law © Koh Swee Jin
Chan Tze Law
© Koh Swee Jin

Prior to 2016, there had been no history or tradition of staging Wagner operas in Singapore. That all changed with The Flying Dutchman, a joint production with a Southeast Asian slant by the Richard Wagner Association (Singapore), OperaViva and Finger Players, conducted by Singaporean Darrell Ang. By virtue of sheer length and ambition, Die Walküre, the second opera in Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung tetralogy, appears to be a quantum leap. It is significant that the Singapore premiere on 5th January 2020 is to be produced not by an opera company but by the Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM), a non-professional outfit of mostly young musicians. I caught up with Singaporean conductor Chan Tze Law, the Music Director of OMM, who gave me the lowdown on what it means for this Wagner opera to be performed in Singapore.

OMM is not an amateur, youth or student orchestra. It is a “volunteer orchestra”, Tze Law explained to me, which means that the orchestra is run and all concerts are performed on a voluntary basis. The ensemble was formed in 2008 by musicians from educational institutions all over Singapore, who wanted to continue performing in ensembles after they left school. “They wanted to read the orchestral repertoire they loved about twice a year and have a good party afterwards,” he mused.

Tze Law was invited to be their conductor and mentor and their concerts so far have been nothing less than ambitious, including Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade as their opening event, Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony in 2009 and Mahler’s First and Second Symphonies in 2010. In 2015, OMM’s performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (hyperbolically nicknamed the Symphony of a Thousand) was a landmark achievement, marking the 50th anniversary of Singapore's independence.

The Orchestra of the Music Makers and Chan Tze Law © Yong Junyi
The Orchestra of the Music Makers and Chan Tze Law
© Yong Junyi

About seventy-five percent of OMM’s players are non-professional (students, national servicemen and young working professionals in non-musical careers), with the rest being professionals (full-time musicians and freelancers) who serve as orchestral leaders, principals and mentors. Many of the professionals who get paid a fee, including Tze Law, donate it back to the orchestra for their productions. Essentially many of the professionals serve pro bono.

The ensemble draws from a pool of over 160 musicians, hence they have the ability to perform works for large orchestral forces. OMM, besides serving as a recreational outlet for the musicians, has also played a social function, using music to serve the community and make a positive impact. To date, the orchestra has helped raise over seven million Singapore dollars (almost 4 million pounds sterling) for various charitable causes in Singapore.

But why Wagner in Singapore? The glorious orchestral music of Wagner, some of the greatest orchestral writing there is, holds a special place in the players' hearts and has long been in OMM’s repertoire. Besides the preludes to Lohengrin and to Die Meistersinger, the orchestra also performed a mostly-Wagner programme for its fifth anniversary in 2013. That concert included the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde and the immolation scene from Götterdämmerung. In 2017, a semi-staged production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel, which employs quasi-Wagnerian orchestral forces, was also greatly enjoyed by the players. These experiences made the orchestra believe that performing a Wagner opera in a similar fashion was a possibility.

Why Walküre? In the planning stages, it was found that 2020 coincided with the 150th anniversary of its premiere in Munich. Besides, Herbert von Karajan had also chosen Walküre to open his Ring cycle productions at the Salzburg Festival. Much of its music would also be familiar to listeners even if they had not previously attended a Ring cycle performance, such as the Ride of the Valkyries, Wotan’s Farewell and the Magic Fire Music.

The OMM production at the Esplanade Concert Hall, directed by locally-based veteran Edith Podesta and conducted by Tze Law, will be semi-staged and performed with costumes. There is already considerable interest from opera lovers in Asia, Australia and the region, who will come to Singapore to witness this spectacle.

Chan Tze Law in rehearsal with the Orchestra of the Music Makers © Yong Junyi
Chan Tze Law in rehearsal with the Orchestra of the Music Makers
© Yong Junyi

The Singapore premiere of Die Walküre is significant given the relatively short history of professional performance of Western classical music in the island-state. The first fully professional musical outfit was the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (inaugurated in 1979) and as recently as 1992, Singapore was described by Time magazine as being a cultural desert among the Asian tiger economies. Thus a Wagner opera being performed here is symbolic of an occasion when Singapore is recognised as a major music destination in the region.

Planning for Wagner did not take place overnight but it was rather a part of the programming process for the orchestra’s second decade. An artistic committee studied the conductor’s scores of all four Ring cycle operas to ascertain whether this was a possibility. The orchestral members’ positive experience in Wagner excerpts and Hansel und Gretel and their relative comfort in performing Mahler symphonies, all suggested that it was worth a shot. They also attended Ring opera performances around the world (including Hong Kong, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, Germany and Hungary) and a shortlist of preferred soloists was drawn up. Opportunities were also given to two Singaporean singers, soprano Janani Sridhar and mezzo-soprano Jade Tan, who sing valkyries Ortlinde and Waltraute.

Could this be the beginning of a Wagner Ring cycle in Singapore? “It is for the audience, as much as the orchestra, to decide,” Tze Law said. “We are here to find out whether Singapore is ready for Wagner. We hope the answer is positive. If the response is overwhelming, we will consider.” How will young people in Singapore respond to Walküre? “We have an advantage as it has never been done here before. There will be fewer preconceptions and people will approach it from different perspectives”.

“People with a fascination with heroes and villains will find any Wagner opera interesting,” he mused. The artwork for Die Walküre’s publicity poster already looks like something from the Star Wars saga, a popular design that will appeal to more than a few generations of movie-goers and music-lovers.

Chan Tze Law conducting the Orchestra of the Music Makers © Shawn Chia
Chan Tze Law conducting the Orchestra of the Music Makers
© Shawn Chia

Conducting a Wagner opera for the first time, Tze Law feels confident, as the orchestra has had as much practice over the years as any other and when all considerations are taken into account, the final result will be greater than the sum of its parts. He just hopes to concentrate on the music.

Are there any personal favourite parts of the opera that resonate with him? Tze Law’s hero is Brünnhilde, from her entry in Act 2 and because of almost everything else she does. Her struggles, caught between her own personality and her parents’ wishes, remind him of personal choices people have to make in today's modern life.

“There is much that appeals to so many different emotions. The lovers (Siegmund and Sieglinde) discovering their past relationship, the intense argument between Wotan and Fricka, the intimate moments in the forest and the high-drama moments with the valkyries and the orchestra”, he said, “and that is the great secret of Wagner operas”.

Click here to find out more about the premiere of Die Walküre in Singapore.

This article was sponsored by the Orchestra of the Music Makers and made possible with support from the Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay.