New Opera’s spunky creative head busts out of the genre’s confines.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

New Opera’s spunky creative head busts out of the genre’s confines.

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If, in his Orpheus in the Underworld, Jacques Offenbach shook the traditional story of Orpheus and Eurydice from its tragic-lovers tree, with the musician forced by Public Opinion to retrieve his cheating wife from the clutches of hell, then Jeong Ae Ree surely burnished the tale with Moulin Rouge-like bawdy campiness.

Was that the god Jupiter clad in hot pink tights, bra and pink fur? And the goddess Diana appearing like a Triumph undergarment model? Needless to say, sexual innuendoes and phallic symbols flew fast and furious, all culminating in the rousing chorus of the Galop Infernal, known to the rest of the world as the can-can tune. The show was fun to watch, shocking at times to see. Definitely not your typical night at the opera.

“We try a lot of crazy stuff,” says Jeong, the artistic director of New Opera Singapore (NOS), which is behind the production. No doubt, the choice of skimpy costumes was daring for the six-year-old company that had won high praises the year before for Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, a psychological thriller about haunted children. The performance represented a milestone for opera in Singapore, said one leading critic at the time.

Of the people who left in the middle of Orpheus, unable to accept the risque depiction of gods partying in the underworld, Jeong says: “People are very conservative when they think of opera. Some of them cannot take singers in bras and panties but why not? They can accept it in a musical and an opera singer is an actress who sings.

“Times have changed. Opera has to change. It has to reflect society, what people are touched by, and what they think. Opera cannot be in a museum.”

She thus adapts her productions to keep up with the times. “The music is opera but the way we present it is very different, very edgy.” Like last year’s L’Incoronazione Di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea), where performers and the stage were dressed in white.

For her turn as Poppea, Roman emperor Nero’s lover who connives her way to the throne, Victoria Li was lauded as “stunning” in a Straits Times review, “with a strong and clear voice to match her oozing sexuality”.

The comment surely justified Jeong’s drive to roll out three to four productions every year. Young talents need these platforms to gain experience and exposure.

“I don’t know how to live otherwise,” says the 49-yearold Korean-Singaporean of her indefatigable energy. “Each of us is born for a reason. You do your very best to complete your work in this life – there is no more after that. So whatever I can do, I must do it.”

NOS’ Dialogues of the Carmelites will be on Aug 3 and 5, Victoria Theatre.