Reviving Malay opera with an epic

Reviving Malay opera with an epic
Cultural Medallion recipient Nadiputra (above) is directing actresses Norish Karman and Margaret Chan in the production.

With her booming voice and years of experience playing larger-than-life roles in the theatre and on television, one would not expect seasoned performer Margaret Chan to be afraid of anything.

But she fears one man - Cultural Medallion recipient Nadiputra, who is directing her in a bangsawan, or Malay opera production, titled Raden Mas next year.

"I am terrified. Nadiputra is so demanding," says the 65-year-old in a crisp English accent. "He told me I spoke Malay with a Chinese accent. Oh goodness gracious me, I never knew."

But Nadiputra, 68, whose real name is Almahdi Al-Haj Ibrahim, has reason to make such demands.

He is the playwright and director of the highly ambitious $1.3-million production, presented by Sri Mamanda Bangsawan, a company of which he is the artistic director. The opera is funded both privately and through government grants.

Raden Mas is based on the legend of Radin Mas Ayu, a 16th-century Javanese princess living in Temasek - the ancient city on the site of today's Singapore - who sacrifices her life to save her father.

A 80-strong production team is behind it and it will be staged from Jan 15 to 17 next year at the 1,500-seat Esplanade Theatre. Tickets are priced between $85 and $300.

After that, there are plans to take the show to the Istana Budaya, Malaysia's National Theatre in Kuala Lumpur. Sri Mamanda Bangsawan also hopes to have it staged in the Sydney Opera House, Royal Albert Hall in London and even on Broadway.

Says Nadiputra, who has written more than 300 dramas in more than 50 years in the business: "It's the biggest thing I've done and it's very high risk. There is no excuse for failure."

Besides Chan, another big name in the cast is Singapore-born and Malaysiabased actress Norish Karman. This is the first time the two actresses are working together.

Norish plays a villain, Tengku Halijah, stepmother to Raden Mas, while Chan plays the physical embodiment of Tengku Halijah's evil conscience.

It is a reunion of sorts for Norish, 40, and Nadiputra, as she was in his nowdefunct theatre company, Theatre Nadi, at the tender age of 11.

"I'm very selective about my roles, but I had no reason to reject this since my sifu is the director," says Norish, who in recent years has established herself more as a chef, singer and motivational speaker. "Sifu" means master in Mandarin.

The titular role will be played by newcomer Siti Shahirah Samad, 21, a student at the National Intitute of Education.

Raden Mas is Sri Mamanda Bangsawan's first production since it was set up in 2013. Its managing director Zulkarnine Hafiz owns the restaurant Mamanda, which is located at Gedung Kuning, a former Malay palace at Sultan Gate.

The company's efforts in reviving bangsawan stems from its desire to promote Malay culture in multiple forms. Besides the live show, there are plans to produce a CD soundtrack, merchandise and even a documentary film featuring the making of the show.

Mr Zulkarnine acknowledges the challenges in presenting bangsawan which, for many, is a lost art form.

Originally from Penang, bangsawan was popular in 20th-century Singapore and was one of the main forms of entertainment in the pre-television days.

"Bangsawan has not really been exposed to the masses in the last couple of decades. It's associated with something our grandparents used to watch," he says.

With this new production, he hopes to revolutionise the art form to attract a new, younger audience and bring it to the international market. He calls it "Bangsawan 2.0".

One way the company is revitalising it is through the use of technology.

An automated guided vehicle will be used to move props around onstage and they will use radio-frequency identification technology to manage the storage of their props.

The company is working with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research for the development of these technologies.

But Nadiputra knows that a modernised, spiffy production may attract brickbats from purists expecting a traditional take on the art form.

Besides modernising some of the dance movements and dialogue, his version of the epic will not have the "extra turn". A trademark of traditional bangsawan, it refers to filler dance or entertainment items unrelated to the story that are used to kill time during set changes and scene transitions.

He says: "We have to revolutionise our theatre productions. We can't stay nostalgic all the time."

This explains his exacting standards when it comes to acting - actors can be booted out if they are not up to scratch.

"I want to show the world that Singapore has talent and bring Raden Mas to the eyes of the world," he says. "We cannot play around. We have to be good."

Book it


Where: Esplanade Theatre

When: Jan 15 to 17 next year

Admission: $85 to $300. Enjoy a 15 per cent discount before April 30

Info: Go to for tickets

This article was first published on April 8, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.

More about

Purchase this article for republication.



Your daily good stuff - AsiaOne stories delivered straight to your inbox
By signing up, you agree to our Privacy policy and Terms and Conditions.