Singing the praises of traditional arts and Teochew opera

Singing the praises of traditional arts and Teochew opera
A performance by the Nam Hwa Amateur Musical and Dramatic Association, a Teochew opera troupe. Contemporising such art forms to enable them to capture younger audiences is critical to preserving their rich heritage. It could also help to forge new ties between ethnic and language groups.

One of the perks - or duties, depending on how you look at it - of my work as deputy chief executive officer of the National Arts Council (NAC) is that I get to experience a broad swathe of Singapore's arts offerings, including arts exhibitions, theatrical productions and book launches.

One recent production not only proved deeply enjoyable, but also provided additional food for thought. It was a Teochew opera whose name loosely translates as "One Household, Three Scholars", staged by Nam Hwa, an amateur troupe that is well-respected by the Teochew community here.

The opera revolves around Madam Sun, whose two sons are taken away when she is unable to repay debts incurred to fund her husband's journey to the capital to take the imperial examinations.

She faces great personal hardship, and is unaware that her sons have grown into accomplished scholars. The opera ends on a joyous note - she is united with both her husband, now a high-ranking official, and her two sons.

The arts can ask tough questions, shine a light on the shadows and margins of society, or make you shift uncomfortably with provocative ideas. But this opera doesn't do that.

Instead, it reminds one of the fundamental ability of the arts to please audiences, as well as reaffirm a shared identity and universal truths. This, too, has its place in our cultural landscape.

The homespun values underpinning the operatic narrative - such as unconditional familial love and filial piety - might seem simplistic to some but, in my mind, they are deeply resonant, no different from Shakespeare's celebrated comedies.

These plays feature protagonists facing insurmountable odds, almost incredulous coincidences and, amid the chuckles elicited by "clown" characters, the reunion of separated lovers or family members.

Of course, a happy ending is de rigueur. At some deep human level, we like our narratives to end on an uplifting note, with the loose ends tied up, even if we accept that real life is far more complex, even morally ambiguous.

Centuries-old art form

Little wonder that the largely Teochew - and white-haired - audience was hugely appreciative, crying out "Good show!" during the curtain call.

To me, the show, staged at the Drama Centre, is also a validation of a 450-year-old art form, and it stirred the memories of many in the audience, who must have watched such shows growing up, probably in less formal settings.

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