First Laksa, now shopping-themed opera

Food and shopping. Such Singaporean pastimes are not normally topics one would associate with opera, but composer, conductor and musician Chen Zhangyi hopes to change that.

Chen, 29, is the winner of this year's Paul Abisheganaden Grant for Artistic Excellence, which recognises outstanding individuals in the performing arts who are National University of Singapore (NUS) students or alumni of up to six years.

He also composed a food-themed opera Laksa Cantata, staged at The Arts House last July, and plans to premiere another opera with a quirky theme - shopping - later this year.

The grant of up to $10,000 is to be used for a short developmental course to further refine the recipient's artistic skills. Chen plans to attend a four-week course in June organised by the Eastman School of Music and the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique in Paris.

The grant is named after the late Cultural Medallion recipient and founder of the Singapore Chamber Ensemble, a precursor to the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

Ms Christine Khor, director of the university's Centre for the Arts, was part of the grant's judging panel alongside Professor Bernard Tan, an NUS physicist-composer and Dr Lee Soo Ann, senior fellow at the school's department of economics and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

She says: "Zhangyi stood out because of his achievements and awards, and also his deep desire to create works with the potential to be part of the Singapore canon. Giving him this grant to pursue the summer programme in Paris will not only benefit the arts community in NUS, but also help him make an impact on the music scene in Singapore."

Chen is currently in Baltimore in the United States, doing his third year of study for a Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the Peabody Conservatory.

Laksa Cantata is based on Bach's Coffee Cantata and is about how a soon-to-be-married couple squabble over laksa. He says of infusing Singaporean inflections in it: "It was very fun because it was about food, local culture, Singlish and the vernacular elements. It was kind of a local love story."

Of his shopping-themed opera, he says: "I had this idea that I wanted to write an opera about it. In the piece, two sopranos will sing about their experiences going shopping."

The piece will be premiered by the chamber ensemble Chamber.Sounds in August.

He is looking forward to his course in Paris, which is about the history and techniques of composition. "I wanted to go to a course in Europe to expand my horizons and get to know the musical scene there."

Another aspect of the grant which he is looking forward to is collaborating with the university's performing arts groups.

He hopes to write a viola concerto for the orchestra and choir, as well as exchange ideas and experiences with the students. "We can never finish learning about music and how music works," he adds.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.