Postcard from Malaysia

Postcard from Malaysia

Navigating the international opera scene for the first time. 

Daniel Carison
Melbourne, Australia

Postcard from Malaysia

Navigating the international opera scene for the first time. 

Recently I returned from a three-week long engagement in Kuala Lumpur, where I was working with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra in their production of Die Zauberflöte. The experience was most enlightening.

As a Melbournian, you could be forgiven for thinking that you live in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world.  But as I discovered, Kuala Lumpur is a rapidly developing city with the food, culture and history to rival any great city in the world. One thing that any visitor will notice in KL is that shopping and shopping malls are prolific throughout the city; they are a hub of activity, full of shopping tourists and people trying to escape KL's oppressive heat and humidity. Like most countries, western cuisine is everywhere. But it is the local cuisine and dishes that are the real winners in KL. For no more than a few Australian dollars one can enjoy a plate of food from the markets overflowing with Nasi Lemak, Char Kway Teow and many other local delicacies. While KL is fairly tropical, it is clear that the influence of the overlapping Malaysian, Chinese and Indian districts and their distinct culture and architecture has shaped this city. Even the Melbourne coffee snob is well catered for in KL as Melbourne-inspired coffee houses pop up more and more frequently. 

For a city that is primarily made of up Malay, Chinese and Indians, the practices and traditions of Western art and culture have certainly permeated their way throughout KL. I’ve been known to groan about the state of classical music, particularly within Melbourne. But when one travels to a non-western country you come to realise how fortunate we are to have the vibrant scene that exists in Melbourne. While classical music still remains a fairly niche market, it is undeniable that there is an immensely passionate group of artists, creatives and concert-goers within KL. The Malaysian Philharmonic was formed in 1998 and has been working tirelessly since its inception to develop an audience and culture around classical music within Malaysia. What immediately struck me about the Malaysian Philharmonic was the quality of both the orchestra and concert hall. Comprised mainly of international soloists (many of whom are Australian), the MPO form one of the most outstanding orchestras I’ve had the pleasure of working with and listening to. The Dewan Filharmonic Petronas centre is a state of the art concert hall that is equipped with one of the best acoustics for classical music you will find. From the outset, it was clear to me that the MPO is devoted to producing art of the highest quality and creating an experience with every concert they produce. 

For an orchestra that primarily focuses on concert repertoire, Die Zauberflöte was a very different kind of project for the Malaysian Philharmonic. With music by Mozart and a libretto by Schikaneder, Die Zauberflöte has been a successful opera since its conception and remains one of the most popular operatic works in the world. However, this production surprisingly marked the first performance of Die Zauberflöte ever in Malaysia. It is a classic tale of light conquering darkness, the search for meaning and of course, love. The work features a full range of characters, voice types, arias and folksong, dialogue, elements of magic and magic realism, audience interaction, and singers and actors playing instruments on stage; the list goes on. Simply put, there is something in this opera for everyone.  In a country where little opera is performed, Die Zauberflöte forms the perfect gateway for anyone to experience an opera for the first time and leave the theatre feeling compelled to return. After each performance audience members seemed inspired and elated, and many also commented on how they would now attend more opera after experiencing Die Zauberflöte.

The process of putting the show together was rapid and intense. The cast, director, conductor, musicians, technicians and creatives had only one week to put an entire opera together. Because of the time constraints, it was very important that my preparation prior to arriving in Kuala Lumpur had been thorough. It is almost as though one must be ready to adapt and perform the work from day one of rehearsals. You have to know your stuff and have made the necessary discoveries about the work before you get on the floor. The inherent challenge with this is that sometimes you will be performing the role for the first time, as I did in Die Zauberflöte. As a first timer, I discovered new things each time I sang the role but also had to convince my audience and colleagues that performing the role was as natural as drawing breath.

Working with colleagues is a big part of Die Zauberflöte, primarily because it is an ensemble work and all the characters interact with each other at least once in the opera. Because Die Zauberflöte is such a standard piece in the operatic repertoire, it’s likely that the singer playing Tamino in one production will have a completely different set of ideas and choices than the Tamino you work with next time. Thus, the entire cast were faced with the challenge of getting to know each other’s working style in a very short time in order to create chemistry and compelling drama on stage. Fortunately, this cast of Die Zauberflöte was filled with incredibly experienced singers, some of whom had sung their respective roles over 200 times. As a young singer surrounded by seasoned professionals, I was mesmerised and inspired by the poise, finesse and dedication of these performers. 

As this work was semi-staged it meant that certain stagecraft elements would not be employed in the production. But, given the significance of this production, the MPO created as large a scale production as they could manage. The concept of semi-staged is ambiguous. While it doesn’t suggest a completely staged production involving all the moving parts you would see in a theatre, it also doesn’t suggest a concert-style performance. Thus, the first few rows of seating were removed and the orchestra were placed on the ground to make way for the action taking place on stage. I was nervous when I heard the orchestra would be on the floor, but because of the fantastic acoustic of the concert hall and wonderful direction of Guillaume Tourniaire, both singer and orchestra were able to blend seamlessly. In this production, we were very fortunate to collaborate with the fantastic singers of the Kuala Lumpur City Opera chorus. The group was formed in 2012 and comprises local Malaysian singers as well as some Australians living in Kuala Lumpur. To complement their relatively static musical role, the chorus in Die Zauberflöte were dressed in blacks, which was very visually effective on stage as it contrasted greatly with the full costumes of the principal cast.

I played the role of Papageno in this production. Given the nature of the role, I had some idea before I left that playing Papageno would mean being prepared for both the physical and vocal demands of the role. Papageno provides comic relief in the show and contrasts with the larger cast of noble characters. In this production, I made many of my entrances through the audience. Consequently, I found myself running onto the stage and then immediately singing. This proved to be a great test of both my fitness and vocal technique. It became clear to me from the outset that my rest during this busy period was going to be critical, and I was dependent on sleep which was, unfortunately, often hard to come by. Rehearsals would take place in the afternoon and evening and often didn't end until after 10pm.

Papageno was originally performed by the librettist himself, Schikaneder, and is the folk singer of Die Zauberflöte. Unlike the other characters, Papageno simply cannot get away with just singing beautifully, and must have a vast library of vocal colours. This was vocally taxing, particularly in the dialogue where I was required to yell, grumble, whisper and manipulate my voice and then immediately sing. I faced a number of other challenges during the show which put my ability to the test. Two such examples both involved the use of my mouth. The first challenge was learning how to play the pipes, a trademark of every good Papageno. In theory, it’s quite simple and in practice, it’s not incredibly difficult. However, while I was pushing to have the pipes from day one of rehearsals, they didn’t arrive until halfway through the final dress rehearsal. This meant on opening night I hadn’t had a chance to play the pipes with the orchestra, nor had I had the time to get to know my way around the instrument and practice singing and playing together. The second challenge came in act one when Papageno is punished by the three ladies for telling lies and has a padlock placed over his mouth which inhibits his ability to speak. The lock used in the show had a pacifier attached to one end which I would bite down on to hold into place. Again, this seemed simple in theory and practice. However, in this production I had to keep the padlock in my mouth for roughly ten minutes while I sat on the edge of the stage during Tamino and the Queen’s arias. By the time I had to sing again, my mouth and throat were dry. This was something I was able to overcome only slightly by ensuring that I actively produced saliva while I sat and waited on the edge of the stage.

I think one of the greatest things I learnt about playing a new role is that you only truly know what the role requires of you when you finally experience the pressure, anxiety and intensity that comes with performing in front of an audience. It is possible to rehearse things to death, but rarely possible to simulate the experience of performing the role in that high-pressure environment, especially when it is a role debut like it was for me. With every production and performance of any role, you learn exactly what is required of you and how to do it better and better each time.

Although I was only a visitor in Kuala Lumpur for a short time, I felt a sense of sadness when it came time to leave what is a truly fantastic city. While it may have a smaller output of classical music and opera than what we can expect in Melbourne, Malaysia is rich in outstanding music makers and passionate advocates who are working tirelessly to establish a strong musical culture. I was inspired by the singers of the Kuala Lumpur City Opera chorus whose vibrant energy was palpable on stage and contributed to creating such a successful show. The Malaysian Philharmonic is undoubtedly one of the best orchestras in the world and Malaysia can be very proud to have such a world class group. All I can say is if you’re every visiting or find yourself in KL, don’t pass up the opportunity to hear this wonderful orchestra. I’ll certainly be looking for an excuse to head back.