And so it begins. We’re kicking off our mega-marathon coverage (health and sanity permitting) of this year’s Singapore Arts Fest with its opening spectacle, The Flight Of The Jade Bird.
A badly injured bird falls from the sky. Immediately, two beings—a woman and a river spirit—fight over it. Later, a white scroll rises up and up in the background for some visual awesomeness. Later, an earthquake. Throughout, you had some powerful singing and beautiful East-meets-West classical music.
It was, however, a case of too little, too late. Composer/writer/director Mark Chan and his team seemed to have saved the best for last, and all of these happened during the second act. At which point, a not-so-negligible number of people had given up on a bewilderingly lacklustre first act that excruciatingly stretched for an hour and a half.
Presented as “part-concert, part-opera, part-storytelling”, it’s supposedly an allegory for our times.
An ancient Jade Bird living in his mystical Jade Palace is besieged by a modern world (with its Facebook and Twitter, wi-fi and 3G) that wants to turn his home into a theme park—and the first task is to kick him and all the superstition he embodies out. Somewhere in the mix, you had a curator and a boy. The latter eventually forms a bond with the Jade Bird, who’s given the chance to either stay (given the conditions, not a good idea) or fly south, where the rest of his kind have already migrated. Bidding his new buddy adieu for the meantime, Jade Bird promises to return.
Sounds pretty okay—except for the fact that it’s not. For all its good intentions, Jade Bird is a bloated, unwieldy work in need of a dramaturg to trim it of its fat. As a premiere, some might say it deserves to be cut some slack. But seeing as it’s set to go on tour (Hong Kong’s the first stop in November), I’m thinking this is also probably a good time as any to be perfectly honest about it, right?
Visually, Jade Bird suffered from some serious staging issues. I don’t have any photos but imagine 10 musicians, six singers, a conductor, a dancer, a storyteller, a piano, a percussion kit all crammed onstage. Which really shouldn’t be much of a problem—if the dancer actually had space to move around.
As it were, Mui Cheuk Yin – who plays the Jade Bird –was a victim not only of overcrowding, but the combination of dim lighting and an unwieldy swathe of fabric-as-costume. Which really confounds me because I’m a huge admirer of lighting designer Lim Woan Wen and costume guru Lai Chan’s efforts elsewhere.
First day jitters could be a factor in the first act’s rather lifeless vibe from the folks onstage—although, as I’ve been thinking recently, that’s always been a dilemma whenever assessing the notoriously short runs of Singapore’s stage performances. But seriously, nobody looked like they were particularly enjoying themselves in the first act.
Not to say that there weren’t any peeps that deserve a shout out. Young soprano Matthew Supramaniam filled in the Boy’s shoes (or lungs?) quite ably; Kee Thuan Chye’s turn as the narrator lent the piece some gravitas; and suona player Guo Ya Zhi, I thought, stood out among the musicians. Even soprano Ee Ping and baritone Huang Rong Hai shook off the cobwebs in the second act for that said singing duel between the Jade Woman and the River Spirit.
But for yours truly, the real issue is actually the piece itself. Not getting into its somewhat confusing plot, Jade Bird is clearly an allegorical piece about change (pitting old and new, ancient and modern, a pragmatic worldview and a fantastical one) and change in Singapore—by way of constructing a myth of sorts.
My question is, in this day and age when the very idea of a nation-as-construct is somewhat a given, why do one without any hint of irony or even self-awareness of the complications of such an undertaking?
There’s one part in the end where, when the Boy reunites with the Jade Bird and implores him to, at the very least, show us what we all have lost in this race towards progress—and one of these things is the idea of a hundred schools of thought. (Or something like that. Like I said, I’m quite confused with the whole proceedings.)
This whole past-as-enlightened versus an Orwellian future is deeply flawed and simplistic, and smacks of naivete in a very 19th or even 20th century way.
But this is just me. Fellow Fest marathoners, fire away!
(The Flight Of The Jade Bird runs until Saturday. Details here.)