Arts & Culture

Tse Yee Ling: Opera Performers live on Honorariums

Does street opera still have a place in Singapore?
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Quiet heartland estates would find makeshift stages within their vicinity this month, since it is the start of the Hungry Ghost Festival. However, the occurrences of such street performances are less frequent now where the main bulk of entertainment's being derived from technology, online or from current trends at any given point in time. So in a world that is rapidly changing and always in the pursuit of the next best thing, where do our traditions, such as street opera, still stand?

The once popular and accessible form of craft and entertainment is now dwindling in numbers due to various reasons. The experienced actors and their main audience are all ageing. It is also difficult to garner attention from the younger crowds because of the lack of appreciation in our local dialects as well as the need to compete with media giants such as Netflix.

Yet, ironically, we see their design elements in fashion and even on advertising materials. Is it fair to use the parts that bait the modern crowd without offering support for the craft itself that holds so much cultural value and a nod to the beginnings of performance in Singapore?

B-SIDE reaches out to Ms Tse Yee Ling, a Cantonese opera performer herself, to find out more about the craft itself.


How much of the decline in viewership of opera is caused by the enforcement of Mandarin being more important than any other dialect 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.  

Are there any ways that technology has helped to promote and preserve opera today?

The development of Social Media has enabled amateur opera groups to establish a stronger presence in the arts scene now. However, when it comes to teaching techniques and material, many methods still rely on the traditional word-of-mouth ways to impart the relevant skills.

What’s 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 being a performer for street opera?

This is strongly linked to pure skills. Hence, it’s always good to start young. Also, there’s always 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. Makeup and costume usually takes about an hour or more, depending on how experienced the actor/actress is.

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

As inflation has set in over the years, street opera is no longer a lucrative business to be in. So many street opera actors do not do opera as a living anymore. In fact, many of them are in the scene due to the camaraderie and to also be in the presence of old friends. Passion plays an important part as well. Staging an opera performance can cost $5,000 and above, and most of the money goes into setting up of the makeshift stage. After portioning out all the logistic expenses, each actor usually gets about $100 to $200 as an honorarium.

There was a seminar held 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 do help the scene at all?

Seminars like these appeal to 2 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 seminars and organising campaigns, what else can be done to directly contribute to the dying tradition?

Financial support from organisations and most importantly, a paying audience, is key. Schools are also an important tool to spread the art form to the younger generations. This could be done in the form of CCAs, and not AEP programmes, which are short-lived, and very forgettable.

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