The Straits Times–“Teochew opera only for the old? Meet the children keeping the art form alive”
About 50 children attend foundation classes organised by Nam Hwa Opera, a local Teochew opera troupe that was conferred the Stewards of Singapore’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Award in 2021 for grooming young and veteran opera performers.
When eight-year-old Asher Tay played Chinese mythological figure Nezha, the shy boy was immediately transformed on stage. He exuded confidence and charisma as the teenage deity, wielding his spear and ring with great ease.
Asher was performing at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre on Aug 7 as part of the Nam Hwa Blazes: Faces Of An Opera showcase.
The Primary 2 pupil at Poi Ching School also sang the lines in Teochew – not an easy feat for someone who is Teochew but speaks English and Mandarin at home.
Nam Hwa Opera’s president Toh Lim Mok, 72, said that besides adults, the non-profit company also nurtures children to keep the Teochew opera art form alive.
In the opera troupe, there are about 50 children from three to 12 who attend foundation classes every Saturday. Those preparing for special roles have additional classes on weekdays. Children’s classes have been going on for about five years now.
Nam Hwa recruits students through social media, by word of mouth and during school outreach. It was conferred the Stewards of Singapore’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Award by the National Heritage Board in 2021 for grooming young and veteran opera performers.
“Every child is different in terms of aptitude. We will try our best to train them, and give all of them stage experience and exposure,” Mr Toh said.
He added: “More than just performance, Teochew opera is a conduit for transmitting traditional culture and values, such as filial piety, to the young.”
Another budding opera star is nine-year-old Jade Tan Yu Xi (above left). Her grandmother, Madam Ivy Tan (centre), plays opera music on her mobile phone as Yu Xi practises her steps and lines at home. The 64-year-old even sings along to cheer her granddaughter on.
Madam Tan said that teachers impart values like discipline even as they train the young students in opera techniques. For example, students have to be on time and take good care of their costumes and props.
Similarly, Asher’s mother, human resources professional Janisia Chew, 44, said his teachers are strict, but always encouraging.
“He really likes it here, with all his friends and teachers who dote on him,” she said.
Asher started opera lessons more than two years ago, after his grandmother found out about the programme on radio. He has a 13-year-old sister, who is more into sports.
“I like to perform and be popular,” said the aspiring detective who enjoys playing with Lego blocks.
Yu Xi started opera lessons when she was four, and started performing in 2018 when she was five (above right). The Primary 4 pupil at Fuchun Primary School watched a performance by Nam Hwa Opera in 2016, and was immediately captivated by the elaborate and intricate costumes on stage.
“I can put on make-up, wear fake eyelashes and beautiful costumes,” she said. “I can also play different characters and make a lot of friends in opera class.”
She hopes to be a fashion designer when she grows up. Her other hobby, incidentally, is playing dress up for paper dolls.
Her brother, eight-year-old Qi Shang (above right), has also been learning opera at Nam Hwa for about two years. The siblings often practise together at their Woodlands condominuim’s driveway outside their ground-floor unit, where neighbours will sometimes offer encouragement and praise.
While they are Teochew, they speak mostly Mandarin. Yu Xi memorises the Teochew opera lyrics (bottom) line by line or uses hanyu pinyin to guide her.
“It was very hard learning Teochew at the beginning,” she said. “I got comfortable only after two weeks.”
As the Chinese saying goes, it takes 10 years of hard work to prepare for a few minutes of performance on stage. Asher and Yu Xi have been refining their opera techniques relentlessly in the years they have been with the troupe.
“I am not nervous on stage because I always practise hard,” Yu Xi said. She continued training online during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Yu Xi was scheduled to perform alongside Asher at the same concert, but had to sit out after she was infected with the Covid-19 virus.
But there is always another time for her to bask in the limelight.
“I think I will continue doing this after I have grown up,” said Yu Xi.
Asher reported to the performance venue about six hours before the actual show. The teachers took hours to put on his make-up, dress him up in his custom-made costume, and apply glue to his forehead to secure his headgear. It was a long, tedious, and sometimes uncomfortable, process. However, the little boy took everything in his stride, and even stole peeks at the audience before his performance
Asher, who has a following of adult fans, said: “I want to do this at least till Primary 6. I want to make the aunties and uncles who watch my performance happy.”
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