Arts & Culture

Tse Yee Ling: Opera Performers Live on Honorariums

Does street opera still have a place in Singapore?

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Residents in heartland estates are likely to find makeshift stages in their vicinity this month, since it is the start of the Hungry Ghost Festival. However, such street performances are less frequent now that people get most of their entertainment from the latest technology, online content or other trends. In a world that is rapidly changing and people are always in pursuit of the next best thing, where do our traditions, such as street opera, stand?

The once popular and accessible form of craft and entertainment is now dwindling in number. The actors and their main audience are getting older. It is difficult to attract the attention of the younger crowds, who do not appreciate local dialects and prefer media giants such as Netflix.

Ironically, we see opera’s design elements in fashion and advertisements. Is it fair to use the parts that bait the modern crowd without offering support for the craft itself, which holds so much cultural value and is a nod to the beginnings of performance in Singapore?

B-Side reaches out to Tse Yee Ling, a Cantonese opera performer, to find out more about the craft.

How much of the decline in opera viewership is caused by the enforcement of Mandarin as being more important than any other dialects here in Singapore?

Yes, to a certain extent. Many of the nuances in the script, and even teaching instructions, are lost in translation. Opera teachers are also not necessarily fluent in Mandarin, or effectively bilingual, making it harder to develop new sets of audiences.

Has technology helped to promote and preserve opera?

Amateur opera groups are using social media to establish a stronger presence in the arts scene. However, when it comes to teaching techniques and material, many still rely on the traditional word-of-mouth way to impart the relevant skills.

What is the most common misconception of street opera in Singapore?

That street opera has lower standards than amateur opera groups in clans and associations.

Besides entertainment and cultural value, what else can we learn or take from the craft itself?

The micro-movements that come along with each style of moving, and that tenacity is the way to go if you want to excel in the craft. Additionally, the art of opera also teaches us to be grateful for what we have.

How does one climb the ranks to be a street opera performer?

This is down to pure skills. Hence, it is always good to start young. Also, there is the element of chance. When the time is ripe, the role is yours to take.

Talk us through what a typical performance day is like, how long is spent on make-up, hair, setting up the stage, etc.

The most amount of time is usually spent on setting up the stage and furnishing it with the necessary backdrops and props. Make-up and costume usually takes about an hour or more, depending on how experienced the actor or actress is.

What is the cost of putting up street opera and how does one survive despite the dwindling audience numbers?

Due to inflation, street opera is no longer a lucrative business. Many street opera actors do not perform opera as a means of livelihood. But many of them remain in the scene because of the camaraderie and they want to be in the company of old friends. Passion plays an important part as well. Staging an opera performance costs at least $5,000, and most of the money goes into setting up the makeshift stage. After paying for the logistical expenses, each actor usually gets between $100 and $200 as an honorarium.

There was a seminar in Singapore in 2015 to discuss the decline in interest and to find ways to revive the interest. Do you think these talks and seminars help the scene at all?

Seminars like these appeal to two different sets of aficionados in the Chinese opera scene.

One side is open to the ‘reinvention’ and exploration of opera. The other side are the traditionalists, who believe that opera should remain as traditional as possible to retain the ‘flavour’.

It is also erroneous to simply categorise all the dialect operas into a general umbrella of ‘Chinese Opera’, which is what these seminars tend to do out of convenience. Different needs apply to the different dialects of opera.

Besides organising seminars and campaigns, what else can be done to rejuvenate the dying tradition?

Financial support from organisations and most importantly, a paying audience, are key. Schools are also an important tool to spread the art form to the younger generations. This could be done in the form of Co-Curricular Activities, and not Art Elective Programmes, which are short-lived and very forgettable.

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