MUSIC, THEATER AND FILM IN SINGAPORE

MUSIC IN SINGAPORE

Traditional Indian dances such as the Bharatanatyam are juxtaposed against classical music that was played and performed by courtesans in the early days. Traditional Malay folk music in Singapore is divided into five groups – Asli, Ronggeng, Zapin, Masri and Joget, all different in terms of pace and influence. For example, Ronggeng is a Javanese-influenced “mating dance”, which features a couple exchanging poetic verses as they dance to the music of a rebab or gong. Chinese folk music, on the other hand, usually depicts experiences in China, with the dancers occasionally carrying props such as authentic rice sieves or gigantic paper fans. [Source: yoursingapore.com, Singapore Tourism Board]

Malay Music: The ronggeng originated from Java, Indonesia, and is similar to Thailand’s ramwong as it speaks of love between a man and woman through the use of poems in the lyrics. Zapin is frequently used in variety shows on Malay television today as it is most festive by nature, while the joget possesses strong Portuguese influences. Traditional Malay dancers occasionally also use props such as candle dishes, rice sieves and paper umbrellas in their dance to illustrate the traditions associated with the music.

Indian Music: What sets Indian classical music apart from most other genres is its emphasis on melody and the staccato nature of its notes. Although it has been divided into Hindusthani (Northern Indian) and Carnatic (Southern Indian), the origins and fundamental concepts of both types of music remain the same. The one thing to watch out for is how these two types of classical music vary in terms of presentation and musical invocation.

Singapore Symphony Orchestra

A full-time professional orchestra with 96 members, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) is well-regarded worldwide for bridging the musical traditions of Asian and Western influences. Since its inception in 1979, the SSO has produced and performed about 50 symphonic programmes a year to the tune of sell-out audiences. And with such an awe-inspiring line-up, it’s perfectly fitting that the majestic Esplanade Concert Hall is its current home performance venue. [Source: yoursingapore.com, Singapore Tourism Board]

Beyond mesmerising audiences with their performances, the SSO has also recorded a number of internationally acclaimed albums. These include the recently released Seascapes, the music of Chen Yi, Bright Sheng and Richard Yardumian, as well as collaborations with great artists like Gil Shaham and Martin Frost. See what’s on during your visit to Singapore and attend a concert to be soothed by the soulful orchestra.

Being the only professional Chinese orchestra in Singapore, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) is accorded iconic status. Since its inauguration in 1997, the 75-strong orchestra has established its performing home in the Singapore Conference Hall, even having enjoyed the patronage of the Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Recognised for its high performing standards, the SCO has been invited to perform at various major occasions such as the World Economic Forum and the International Summit of Arts Council in 2003, as well as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Annual Meeting in 2006, which saw visitors from all over the world. With regular performances being held, catch a concert if you can during your visit to Singapore.

Bangsawan – Malay Opera

Bangsawan is a form of Malay opera that is now considered a rarity in the Asian region. Like most western plays, bangsawan performances often depict classic tales of love and treachery. The most traditional types of bangsawan however, surround Malay myths. [Source: yoursingapore.com, Singapore Tourism Board]

Other popular children’s tales that inspire bangsawan plots include Bawang Putih Bawang Merah and Sang Nila Utama. Sang Nila Utama is a popular character from local history books, known for his discovery of the lion on the island of Temasek (Singapore’s original name before it was christened by Sir Stamford Raffles).

Bangsawan performances in Singapore are now typically performed on televised variety shows by the Sri Warisan dance troupe as well as during traditional Malay weddings that are held in the heartlands of Singapore.

Pop Music in Singapore

South Korean pop music (K-Pop) has a big following in Singapore as it does elsewhere in Asia. The largest Asian market for Japanese pop-music is Taiwan, followed by Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.

In Singapore rap groups sing about courtesy and filial piety. The Singaporean hip hop group Urban Exchange is popular throughout Southeast Asia. They have a recording deal with the EMI Group’s Positive Tone label. The Zouk nightclub traditionally featured Asia’s hip hop artists. In 2004, two Singaporean universities began imposing fines on students caught illegally sharing music on the Internet.

Top name acts such a Rihanna, Maria Carey and Justin Berber have played at the Singapore Grand Prix. At the 2013 race, Justin Bieber headlined on Monday, Rihanna headlined on Sunday and The Killers headlined on Saturday. Tom Jones, Bob Geldof and others also performed.

The Rolling Stones and Moby have performed in Singapore. In 2002, Singapore hosted its first ever blues festival. Thrash-metal bands in Singapore include Force Vomit, The Lizard's Convention and The Boredpucks (they used to have a "h" in their name after the "p").

Punk Rock in Singapore

The punk rock magazine BigO (short for "Before I Get Old") was a monthly that was launched in 1985 as a photocopied "fanzine." The magazine had articles about local alternative bands such as The Opposition Party and Corporate Toil and ran comics like "Condom Boy" about a young boy who wears a giant condom. The magazine's name is an acronym for "Hope I die before I get old," a line from 1965 Who anthem "My Generation." [Source: Reuter]

With a over price of about $2.50 and a circulation of around 10,000, BigO scored a big coup in 1994 when it recorded the first interview with R.E.M. after the release of their album "Monster." The magazine also printed rare interviews with Patti Smith and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam.

An official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Reuters his two teenage sons read BigO. "There's a niche for it," he said. "As Singapore matures in cultural sophistication, we must be tolerant of different preferences and even a certain irreverence among our young people and artists."

Singapore Bans Janet Jackson and Puff the Magic Dragon

In 2001, Singapore banned Janet Jackson's album “All For You” because the lyrics were deemed too steamy for the conservative city-state. Reuters reported: “ Government censors imposed the ban because one song, Would You Mind has "sexually explicit lyrics," the Films and Publications Department said in a statement. The album's distributor, EMI, has filed an appeal against the ban, said EMI Singapore senior marketing executive Angeline Teo. “During the introduction to the contentious song, track nine on the album, the singer, using popular sexual vernacular, recites a list of desires she has towards an unnamed subject. [Source: Reuters, May 5, 2001]

Janet Jackson’s All For You was banned because the lyrics of the song Would You Mind were deemed "not acceptable to our society". In the song, Jackson says: "I just wanna touch you, tease you, lick you, please you, love you, make love to you." Authorities also banned Jackson's previous album, The Velvet Rope, because of its references to homosexuality and other issues considered touchy in the tightly controlled country.

Singapore has a long history of banning Western popular songs, dating back to Peter, Paul and Mary's 1963 hit Puff, the Magic Dragon -- believed by censors to contain references to marijuana. The Beatle's 1967 album Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band was banned until 1993 because of its pro-drug lyrics. Erotica by Madonna was banned because iys sexual content and I Am Not Your Girl was kept off the shelves because it contained an essay on religion.

Theater in Singapore

Free performances of Chinese opera are fixtures of some festivals and holidays in Singapore. Performances on outdoor stages can last for hours, even days.

The Necessary Stage is an experimental theater known for addressing controversial topics. Theatrworks director Ong Jeng Sen staged a well-received Asian version of King Lear that incorporated elements of Sumatran martial arts , Peking Opera and Japanese Noh.

In Singapore, Chinese opera is practised freely especially during celebrations like Chinese New Year and Hungry Ghost Festival, when it’s performed on open fields in heartlands across the city. Traditional instruments such as the erhu, drums and cymbals are commonly used in Chinese opera, accompanied by colourful and outlandish costumes and rich makeup to create mesmerising yet culturally-steeped performances. [Source: yoursingapore.com, Singapore Tourism Board]

Voyage de la Vie - Singapore's First Theatrical Circus

Singapore hosted the "rock circus" Voyage de la Vie in 2012. Coolinsights reported: “Helmed by former MediaCorp Executive Producer Andrea Teo, who is now the Vice-President of Entertainment at Resorts Wrold Sentosa, Voyage de la Vie features the talents of creative producer Mark Fisher (chief designer of 2008 Beijing Olympics' opening and closing ceremonies), Michael LaFleur - a previous imagineer with the Walt Disney Company, Philip Wm McKinley of "Ringling Bros and Barun and Bailey's The Greatest Show on Earth" fame, set designer Ray Winkler (who worked on tours for U2, Generis and the Rolling Stones), and composer and former Singapore Idol runner-up Jonathan Lim. [Source: coolinsights.blogspot.jp, March 31, 2012]

Featuring a multi-national cast from all over the world, Voyage de la Vie is part circus, part musical fantasy and part theatre. Fans of Cirque du Soleil productions would be familiar with the way in which elaborate oriental-inspired sets, musical scores, athletic circus performers and a touch of drama fuse together in this theatrical production. The basic story behind the show is one where an office worker escapes a humdrum and meaningless existence (sounds familiar?) to enter a magical fantasy land where the impossible happens.

According to the programme booklet: "Trapped in a dreary existence, a young man's desire to find meaning and fulfilment in this life leads him to set out on a magical journey of fantasy and imagination in a world beyond ours. Here, he will meet extraordinary characters undergoing breathtaking feats of skill and daring. Through their trials and adventures, the boundaries are blurred between conflict vs resolution, reality vs illusion, temptation vs desire, and imagination vs true love. At the end of his wondrous quest, the young man finally realises his true destiny... To appreciate life, he has to first understand himself."

Like the Cirque du Soleil theatrical circus performances, the show featured pre-performance comedians who in this case came disguised as a pair of bumbling husband and wife tourists. Interacting and teasing the audience together with a stern-looking "security guard" they provided light-hearted entertainment to usher in the mood. In my opinion, the main show itself scored several hits and misses. The overall choreography was pretty slick and one scene flowed seamlessly into the next without any jarring shocks.

Most of the cast members are highly proficient performers, wowing the audience with their sense of rhythm, athletic grace and military-like precision. I found the performance by the two ladies swinging up on the trapeze heart-stopping, while my son enjoyed the juggler's eye-popping skill in tossing 7 balls up in the air. The archery act with a William Tell inspired shoot-the-apple-above-one's-head act was also impressive. The sets and costumes are also wonderfully created, transporting one effectively from one scene to the next, with a weird mix between exotic orientalism, nostalgia, punk rock, and a dystopian future. While the contexts of Western-performers dressed as oriental soldiers seemed a little amusing, I liked how the various visual and audio elements fused together.

Singapore Stages a Play about the Porn Star Annabel Chong

A play about the life of a Singaporean woman who made a name for herself by performing 251 sex acts in 10 hours opened in Singapore in April 2007— a sign of loosening censorship in the city-state. Associated Press reported: “251, a play about Annabel Chong, is also a new test of public tolerance for sex in a society that remains largely conservative, despite increasingly liberal attitudes among the young. Admittance is only for those 18 and older. Tickets have been selling fast, with the play's opening performance and another 10 of its 14 scheduled shows in the 220-seat theater already sold out, said Toy Factory Productions' assistant marketing manager Bryan Teo."It shows Singaporeans are very curious about who Annabel Chong really is," Teo said. "They have all heard about the 251 sex acts, and now they want to find out more about her." [Source: Associated Press, April 5, 2007 <^>]

“Chong shot to international adult film notoriety in 1995 when she performed 251 sex acts with 70 men in a video. Her performance was billed as world record-setting, but it impressed few in her home country. The video remains unavailable in Singaporean stores because pornography is banned. 251 explores a little known side of Chong - including her troubled experience with religion as a teenager, a violent sexual assault as a college student overseas, and the intellectual premise of the video that earned her a spot in porn history. "Whether we like her or absolutely hate her, we can't deny the fact that she is very much part of our national psyche," director Loretta Chen told the Associated Press in an interview last month. The cast includes local actress Cynthia Lee-MacQuarrie and four others. <^>

“Chong, whose real name is Grace Quek, started working in adult films as a postgraduate student in California. The release of her infamous porn film led to several media appearances, including an interview on the Jerry Springer Show, and a 1999 documentary about her life, which was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. She said then the video was partly a reaction to growing up in Singapore, where individuality sometimes finds itself at odds with the wealthy city-state's tight social and political controls - a theme Chen said 251 would also tackle. <^>

“Chong retired from pornography in 2003 and is now said to be a US-based Web designer. She has declined media interviews. The play is being staged amid efforts by the government to shake off Singapore's straight-laced image to boost tourism and cater to a generation exposed to overseas influences. <^>

All-Male Oscar Wild Wilde in Singapore

In 2009, Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” was staged in Singapore with an all-male cast. Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop wrote in the New York Times, “Presenting Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” with an all-male cast dressed as men has raised a few eyebrows in conservative Singapore, leading the media regulator to request the company to prominently display an age advisory of “16 years and above” on all its publicity material, with the notice, “Re-interpretation, all-male cast.” The director, Glen Goei, said he decided to recast the well-known play, which has several female characters, because he wanted to “celebrate” Oscar Wilde, a man who “dared to be true to himself and his nature” and “remind people what he stood for.” [Source: Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop, New York Times, April 1, 2009 /*\]

“Mr. Goei’s staging of the play has particular resonance in Singapore, where homosexuality is still a criminal activity, punishable with up to two years in prison under Section 377A of the penal code, a law dating back to British colonial days. The director said he saw all of the characters in the play as projections of Wilde’s own voice and world. “This play is all about being true to one’s self,” he said. “Having an all-male cast is not a gimmick, even though the play is very gendered. It’s about how I read Oscar’s life. He had separated from his wife and when he wrote the play, his world was surrounded by men. That was Oscar Wilde’s reality, yet he had to write for a Victorian conservative society, so he had to write under a very heterosexual paradigm.” /*\

“Mr. Goei found inspiration for this interpretation from reading “The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde” by Neil McKenna and “Straight Acting” by Sean O’Connor, a history of British homosexual playwrights, yet he said he was a bit surprised by the request for an advisory. “There was another traditional production of this play two weeks ago with exactly the same text and it didn’t get an advisory,” he said. “Usually the rating is based solely on the text, but now it’s based on the interpretation of the text. What is bizarre is that apparently it would have been O.K. if the men were wearing women’s clothes and kissing another man, but it’s not if everybody is dressed as men.” /*\

“Though Mr. Goei deliberately selected an all-male cast, he has not changed Wilde’s text or the names of the characters. Amy Tsang, the deputy director of arts and publications at the Media Development Authority, explained that the parental advisory is not a restricted rating, but was recommended by the Arts Consultative Panel, made up of a cross-section of members of the public, because it felt that “younger audiences, who may not be familiar with the original play, are likely to be confused about its content and underlying messages.” Ms. Tsang said that panel members felt that the play had “gay undertones” and “may be inappropriate for a young audience,” adding that some members of the public had written to MDA to share their concerns about it. Ms. Tsang said the advisory was meant only to alert parents and teachers and gives them the discretion to decide whether they want their children or charges below that age to view the play. “It is not a mandatory rating,” she stressed. /*\

“Theater in Singapore usually gets a lot of leeway because of its limited reach, but having an all-male cast in a tangled romantic comedy is proving a bit more controversial because of the penal code. Indeed, anything that may be considered as promoting homosexuality or even suggesting homosexuality is normal can be punishable. Last year a local cable operator was fined for airing an episode of a home decorating series that featured the house of a gay couple and their baby. While the government has stated it would not be “proactive” in enforcing Section 377A in cases of consensual acts that take place in private, the section’s continued presence provides a focus for gay rights’ campaigners. “A bit like having a revolver pointing straight into your head playing Russian Roulette,” said Mr. Goei, who laments in the show program that young gay men were either too frightened to sign a campaign to repeal the law 18 months ago or felt there was no need, since the authorities have said it will not be enforced. /*\

Singapore's Nude Showgirls Revue Flops After One Year

The Crazy Horse nude revue has endured for more than 60 years in Paris but in Singapore, it folded after just 15 months. Bloomberg reported: “Eng Wah Organization Ltd, the Singapore partner for Crazy Horse's first Asian home, blamed government curbs on advertising -- including television and radio -- for helping limit attendance to less than half the 300 customers anticipated for each show. Authorities also decreed that showgirls wear G-strings and outlawed some dance movements. ``We realized that Singapore isn't the most promising market for us,'' said Philippe Lhomme, the president and part-owner of the show in Paris. ``We were probably a bit ahead of the times.'' [Source: Bloomberg, March 28, 2007 \=/]

The flop is a blow to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's drive to create a ``vibrant'' buzz, luring tourists and talent to a country with a reputation for being prim. Singapore in 2005 lifted a four-decade ban on casinos as officials sought to reverse a dwindling share of visitor spending in the Asia-Pacific region. Crazy Horse's exit highlights the island's contradictory goals, said Tan Tarn How, a senior researcher on the arts and creativity at Singapore's Institute of Policy Studies. ``It raises the whole question of how you maintain the clean, above-board image and, at the same time, want to attract another kind of tourist,'' Tan said. ``They wanted controlled looseness.''

“Government policies aren't wholly to blame for Crazy Horse's demise, said Chua Hak Bin, an economist who tracks tourism at Citigroup Inc in the city. The big-spending visitors the show expected to attract didn't materialize. Singapore is drawing more budget travelers, who wouldn't pay S$60 (US$39) to S$250 to see Crazy Horse, Chua said. ``You can't rely on the local population'' of 4.4 million to fill Crazy Horse's 450 seats for 13 shows a week, Chua said. ``Clientele flow didn't justify the audience size they were looking for.''

Singapore's venue was too big and the expensive seats rarely sold, said Lhomme in Paris. Crazy Horse in the French capital seats 250 people and charges 90 euros (US$118) to 110 euros. ``A smaller show would probably have survived,'' said Andrew Teo, 31, a financial analyst in Singapore, who attended one of the final performances. Singapore doesn't have a culture of watching such shows, said Jeffrey Hu, a local real-estate executive, who also was among the final patrons. ``The show is ahead of its time,'' said Hu, 36. ``Maybe if it had come a few years later when the casinos are here, it would fare better.''

Eng Wah could advertise only in newspaper film-listing pages, niche magazines and through brochures in selected areas, Managing Director Goh Min Yen said Jan. 25, when she announced Crazy Horse was folding. Overseas, the company promoted the show through the Singapore Tourism Board, said Eileen Bakri, a spokeswoman for Eng Wah. The government approved more outlets for brochures, said Amy Tsang, deputy director for arts licensing at the Media Authority of Singapore. In August, it lowered the audience age limit to 18 from 21.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Singapore Tourism Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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