In Search of Singapore’s Early Opera History

Corey Koh began with a simple question about the early days of opera in Singapore. Trawling through newspaper archives and scholarly articles, Corey, a young classical tenor who has performed widely in Singapore and abroad, uncovers a fascinating story of Singapore's place within a larger transcontinental touring circuit, and gives us a glimpse into early performance criticism in Singapore.

My first foray into the realm of classical music and opera began at the age of 7, when I first started singing.  Even at that age, I was captivated by its beauty, drama, and grandeur. But growing up in Singapore, there weren’t that many opportunities to attend fully-staged performances of western operas, with only a handful of companies dedicated to this esoteric art form. As I grew older, my interest only deepened, and I lived vicariously through recorded performances of canonical works in illustrious venues.

Indeed, I sometimes found myself questioning why I chose to practice a clearly imported, western art form, and from this arose the central question that spurred the writing of this article: what is Singapore’s historical place in the world of western opera? While we are familiar with modern Singapore’s operatic endeavours, with increasingly “Singaporean” takes on the art form put on by a number of excellent homegrown companies, I wondered what opera was like in Singapore’s nascent years. With our long colonial history, most of which coincided with the rising popularity of opera in Europe, and engagement with western classical music throughout, I had assumed that there would have been some operatic activity in Singapore at some point before the modern era. My search for an answer took me down a rabbit hole that eventually led to this article.

The answer was a lot more complicated than I had thought. Optimistically, I had expected to find a bustling music scene, one that permeated social life, of which opera would no doubt be a part, given its prominence in Europe at the time. However, records were scarce. Indeed, there has been little scholarship looking specifically into Singapore’s operatic history, and all indication points towards the conspicuous absence of fully staged western operatic performances. It appears that western classical music existed, just not opera. This is made even more puzzling by the existence of bustling opera scenes in nearby countries. In Vietnam, for instance, the French built three magnificent opera houses in Saigon, Haiphong, and Hanoi in the short span of 15 years from 1897 to 1912, importing French companies to perform there.¹ Of course, one would expect this of a French colony. But even in Thailand, King Rama VI’s personal interest in opera led him to personally produce a 1918 production of Mascagni’s Il Cavelleria Rusticana.² There are also records of opera seasons running in Jakarta and Manila.³ The paucity of opera in Singapore, therefore, seems strange. In order to understand this, we must contextualise Singapore at the time.

Singapore was a pit stop along the larger, established, transcontinental network of touring opera companies, spreading from Europe to the Far East, through India, along colonial trading routes. We were never the main destination for touring companies; Singapore simply did not have the financial draw. Opera at the time would have largely been the pursuit of local western elites, which certainly numbered far fewer in Singapore than in a place like Bombay. Indeed, the cost of attending would have naturally restricted access to opera to an even smaller elite group.⁴ From the 1830s onwards, European and American troupes (not just operatic but also theatrical) travelled along maritime trade routes between cities in India, Singapore, Batavia, Hong Kong, and Melbourne. They entertained colonial residents at these ports of call, creating what Nicholson calls “portals through which European and American cultural and, specifically, sonic influence penetrated the non-European world.”⁵

India and Australia, in particular, became hotbeds of operatic activity from the 1840s, with their large European populations providing a ready stream of audience members. Reflecting their international audiences, troupes that travelled along them sometimes comprised members from various countries along the way. An illustrative example is the Company of English-born Soprano Alice May and composer Benjamin Allen, who performed the “two last acts of the opera of Maritana and also La Fille de Madame Angot” in Singapore in 1876.⁶ Though both Allen and May were born in England, they had formed their company in Melbourne, filling their ranks with local singers. They found success in Calcutta, building up a strong reputation for themselves which they certainly lived up to in Singapore; the Straits Times reported that they had “fulfilled the expectations formed of them from the favourable reports of their appearances in India”.⁷ While not all companies were of a similarly multinational nature, the network facilitated artistic exchange around the region, with Calcutta, Bombay, and Melbourne being particularly significant points of origin.⁸

At this juncture, it is important to define opera more clearly. For our purposes, opera, without further distinction, refers to the western classical canon, Italian Bel Canto, for instance. In any case, most complete, fully staged, operas were put on by Italian companies. This distinction is vital, because western operatic troupes would come to face growing competition from less elitist forms of entertainment such as the Parsi theatre, also commonly referred to as Parsi Opera. Many performances, even by visiting opera companies, especially post-1880, contained smaller operettas and standalone arias. Pedantically debating whether a work, especially lesser-known ones, falls under the definition of “opera” is not within the scope of this article, and I have elected to take a more inclusive view where there is ambiguity. 

Based on this definition, therefore, the earliest full operatic production in Singapore (at least, the first to be widely recorded) was put on by one Giovanni Pompei, a travelling Italian Impresario. Pompei was also a product of the transatlantic networks, having formed his company in Batavia in 1862 and spent a number of years in Bombay before his company’s 1869 visit to Singapore as the The Royal Batavia Opera Company. The company gave their first performance in Singapore at the Town Hall (now Victoria Concert Hall) on May 3rd 1869, performing Bellini’s Norma, to what the Daily Times described as a “not so large audience as we hoped to see”.⁹ This was followed by Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia on May 7th, and Verdi’s La Traviata on May 10th.¹⁰ Lucrezia Borgia was repeated again, before the company left Singapore for Batavia. Reviews were largely positive, although the Daily Time opened their review of Norma with explicit criticism of the scenery, “The mise-en-scene was very poor”. Reviewers back then certainly did not pull any punches!.¹¹ This was attributed to the “total absence of appropriate scenes which necessitated a distant view of St. Paul’s being substituted for the recesses of an ancient Gallic Forest,”.¹² This highlights a challenge faced when staging opera in Singapore: the company had to rely on scenery available locally, instead of bringing their own for logistical reasons. Naturally, this may not have been as much of a problem in another city with a larger theatrical culture.

The music, however, was far more well received, with Signora Villa’s (playing Norma) rendition of the famous aria Casta Diva being described as “splendidly sung”.¹³ Lucrezia Borgia was “very well given by the whole force of the company, and was evidently much appreciated by the audience”.¹⁴ La Traviata was even more successful than the preceding two, with Signora Tortolini’s Violetta singled out for praise for her “account of dramatic power, which we have never seen equalled in Singapore.”¹⁵ The Straits Times summed up with the following: “As a whole, the Company is a very good one, fully equal to most of the provincial Opera Companies in Europe, and an opportunity of hearing such good music is not likely to occur again at any rate, for a long time to come…we have no doubt the Company will leave our stage with the applause they so well deserve”.¹⁶ Suffice to say, the experience was well received by local audiences, to whom good operatic music “never [was] our fortune to hear”.¹⁷ Indeed, the comparison to “provincial Opera Companies in Europe” should not be taken as a slight to their abilities; as McClellan notes, even the performers in the relative operatic hotbed of Hanoi were from smaller provincial houses rather than major ones, for socioeconomic and financial reasons.¹⁸ As far as this part of the world was concerned, “provincial” was as good as we were going to get. Pompei’s Company returned in November 1870 for a series of performances, less well documented than their previous visit.¹⁹ Their performance of Lucia di Lammermoor, once again starring Signora Tortolini, was similarly well received by the Straits Times reviewer in attendance, though he notes that the “attendance, though very fair, was by no means so large as the talent of the company deserves”.²⁰

In 1875, Singapore hosted a troupe which would subtly contribute to the downfall of Italian Opera in the region: Dave Carson’s Minstrels. They brought with them a variety show with magic, “beautiful songs… and charming French ballads”, but also Carson’s own specialties The Calcutta Palkee-Wallahs and The Bengalee Baboo, filled with “artistic representations”, or more accurately, racist stereotypes of Indians, which the Straits Times reviewer described to be “ludicrously true to the life”.²¹ Born in the United States, Carson started his troupe in India, being the first to perform a form of “Burlesque Italian Opera” with American blackface minstrel troupes (yet another racist trope) putting up comic “operas” in Bombay.²² Although not strictly “opera” by contemporary definition, Carson’s place in regional artistic and operatic networks cannot be discounted because of their popularity at the time. They would become an insidious threat to the livelihoods of men like Pompei in the years to come, drawing audiences away from serious Italian works with their lowbrow humour. 

The prescient warnings of the reviewers in 1869 that opera was a rare occurrence in Singapore proved to be true. Singapore would have to wait until 1878 before another prominent touring troupe visited in the form of Augusto Cagli and his company. Another notable figure in the touring scene and beneficiary of the international networks, Cagli too had made his name in Bombay in the 1860s, before joining forces with Pompei in 1871 and finding success in Melbourne. Cagli was also noted for being the first to bring Italian Opera to Cape Town. Cagli’s troupe gave “one or two Operatic Performances” in Singapore, en route to China in 1879, but returned in full force the following year.²³ This time, they gave performances of Il Trovatore, Faust, Lucrezia Borgia, Rigoletto, and Crispino e la Comare, a work less popular today, but a staple of the touring scene back then. Unlike in 1869 with Pompei however, Cagli’s reception was comparatively lukewarm, with little column space devoted to reviewing these performances beyond short paragraphs broadly praising the quality of the troupe.²⁴ This stands in stark contrast with Pompei’s 1869 tour of Singapore, where each performance was afforded a detailed and frank review. This diminished media interest perhaps hints at a broader decline in public interest, one that would spell the beginning of the end for Italian Opera in Singapore. Humorously, the sole article found commenting on any Cagli’s performances in any depth (written the night after Il Trovatore on 27th July 1880), commented that the “opening scene was greatly marred by there being a performance in a large tent or enclosure under the very windows of the Town Hall, and the solo of Fernando was not improved by the sounds emanating from a Portuguese band there, in which the big drum took a prominent part”. ²⁵

 The same article went on to highlight the very problem facing opera in Singapore at that time (and indeed, in our time) – the audience was “not so numerous as could have been wished”, despite the “talent placed before them”.²⁶ As seen in 1869, small audiences were a problem right from the start, though perhaps this problem had intensified by 1880. Whereas in 1869, foreign companies playing in Singapore were rare, by the 1880s they had become relatively commonplace, as American Minstrel troupes such as Carson’s, as well as Parsi touring troupes, meant that visiting Italian Troupes no longer had the same allure that they had just a decade ago. As Nicholson put it, “Singapore’s audiences, now exposed to a mindboggling variety of opera, had wearied of the Italians”. Indeed, Singapore was not unique. Faced with heightened competition from Minstrel and Parsi troupes, the Italians “had been pushed out of the cut-throat South and South-East Asian acoustic marketplace”.²⁷ The Straits Times corroborates this view in 1890, attributing the rarity of visiting Italian companies to “the financial results of a season of performances by several Companies… hav[ing] been very discouraging”.²⁸ Audience tastes had shifted away from esoteric, so-called highbrow, foreign-language operas, towards far more accessible forms of entertainment.²⁹

Though never common in the first place, Italian troupes never again returned in force. After a brief 1883 visit by Hawley’s Italian Opera Company, during which they performed Lucia Di Lammermoor and Il Barbiere di Siviglia, the next time Italian Opera was performed in Singapore was in 1890, when the passing “Grand Italian Opera Company Margherita di Savoia Regina d’Italia” performed the same two operas.³⁰ Following that, Singapore would have to wait until 1900 before Il Trovatore, Ernani, and Carmen were heard.³¹ The relative rarity of Italian Opera in Singapore from then on reveals the changing tastes of local audiences, whose “English taste runs rather to musical comedy and “leggy” burlesque, and that grand opera is nothing to the Anglo-Saxon Philistine”.³² It would appear that the “Anglo-Saxon Philistine” in Singapore preferred other, less serious entertainment to Italian Opera, and audiences voted with their wallets. Adding to the Italian’s troubles, the Straits Times wrote in 1890 that “English people, as a rule, are not lovers of Italian Opera, and there is much less attraction in these operas when performed in the East, without an effective orchestra or a full chorus and in a miniature theatre.”³³ No doubt, the latter two were problems right from the start – the chief complaint of reviews on the very first Opera performed in Singapore centered around the limited scenery available, and most performances in Singapore were accompanied by a piano or small orchestra of no more than 8 players.

The space left by the Italians and their repetitive repertoire was swiftly occupied by “musical comedy and “leggy” burlesque.” Post-1880, Singapore played host to a diverse number of groups: Parsi companies from Bombay and Victoria, Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company from Tasmania, a children’s performing Troupe which made multiple visits, French Opera Bouffe, and global stars (in relative terms) like Tasmanian Soprano Amy Sherwin.³⁴ Notably, the Willard Opera Company from Australia made several visits to Singapore in this period, performing a diverse range of shorter comic works such as Von Suppe’s Boccaccio (1894), Chassaigne’s Falka (1895), Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience or Bunthorne’s Bride, among others.³⁵

Passing companies shifted away from performing the entirety of an Opera as the Italians did, instead opting for a more concert-like structure, with a mixture of songs and shorter comic operettas closer in format to the variety shows or Parsi theatre which Singaporean audiences had gotten used to.³⁶ There was also a shift towards the English medium, with Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado and Pirates of Penzance being played a number of times, notably by the Stanley Opera Company, another children’s troupe from Australia.³⁷ Interestingly, Yammomo points out that it was the 1892 performance of The Mikado by the Stanley Opera company that sparked the future Thai King Vajiravudh’s passion for opera, eventually leading him to introduce opera in Thailand.³⁸

The local amateur scene, too, deserves some mention. Most of what we know about Singapore’s amateur music scene pre-1919 is taken from E.A Brown’s chapter in One Hundred Years of Singapore, a survey of early Singapore commissioned by the Straits Settlement’s government in celebration of Singapore’s centenary. Within his chapter, Brown describes the activities of the Amateur Musical Society, though mostly limited to instrumental music or concert-style performances with excerpts from popular works. Vocal music, it seems, was limited mainly to oratorios and cantatas, such as Rossini’s Stabat Mater, performed in 1889 with the aforementioned Amy Sherwin, Messiah in 1892, and Elijah in 1893, to name a few.³⁹ (Brown, however, neglects to mention an 1889 performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, despite it featuring many of the same performers discussed at length in his writing).⁴⁰ The limits of musical efforts in Singapore, observed Brown, “suffered from want of tenor soloists”, nor were the musical society able to find a good soprano.⁴¹ No doubt, this restricted the scope of works that the amateurs could perform. The repertoire chosen, too, reflects the tastes of the English population at the time – it certainly fits the stereotype of the English favouring oratorio over opera, perhaps another contributing factor to Italian opera’s downfall in Singapore.

At the end of my personal journey of looking for historical markers on the local opera scene, I learnt that  Singapore was the nexus through which passed performers from Italy, India, Australia, France, and more, even if their footprint was ephemeral and our participation passive. Looking now at the present, we have come into our own since those early days. Today, with the plethora of new and creative repertoire explored by local companies (unlike the repetitive visiting Italians), we add our own little twist to this imported art form. Our own homegrown talents are taking a more active role in its creation and heralding a new chapter in Singapore’s musical journey. I cannot wait to see what the future holds, what new opportunities the local opera scene will have for me as an aspiring young singer.

¹Michael McClellan, “Performing Empire: Opera in Colonial Hanoi,” Journal of Musicological Research 22, no. 1–2 (2003): 145. doi:10.1080/01411890305920.

²meLê Yamomo, “Global Currents, Musical Streams: European Opera in Colonial Southeast Asia.” Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film 44, no. 1 (2017): 65. doi:10.1177/1748372717741440.

³Ibid., 60-61

⁴While the articles available did not provide an assessment of audience demographics, based on existing research into other art forms, there may have some stratification within the audiences as a group i.e. the audiences who enjoyed Opera may not have been the same that shifted towards other forms of entertainment. Certainly, the European associations of Opera as an art form would suggest that audiences were mainly among local colonial elites. The clearest suggestion that Operatic audiences were drawn largely from the colonial population is perhaps this quote from a 1900 review that the “English taste runs rather to musical comedy and “leggy” burlesque, and that grand opera is nothing to the Anglo-Saxon Philistine”, quoted again later in this essay.

⁵Rashna Darius Nicholson, “Italian Impresarios, American Minstrels and Parsi Theatre.” in Italian Opera in Global and Transnational Perspective, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022) 218. doi:10.1017/9781108920636.012.

⁶“The Italian Opera,” Straits Times (Singapore), November 19, 1870, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes18701119-1.2.7/.

⁷“News of the Week,” Straits Times (Singapore), May 20, 1876, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes18760520-1.2.19/.

⁸Esmeralda Monique Antonia Rocha, “Imperial Opera: The Nexus between Opera and Imperialism in Victorian Calcutta and Melbourne, 1833-1901.” (Phd diss. University of Western Australia, 2012), 136

⁹“The Royal Batavia Opera Company,” Straits Times Overland Journal, May 6, 1869, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/stoverland18690506-1.2.3.5/.

¹⁰Ibid.

¹¹Ibid.

¹²Ibid.

¹³Ibid.

¹⁴“The Royal Batavia Opera Company,” Straits Times Overland Journal, May 20, 1869, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/stoverland18690520-1.2.3.1/.

¹⁵“The Royal Batavia Opera Company,” Straits Times (Singapore), May 15, 1869, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes18690515-1.2.6/.

¹⁶Ibid.

¹⁷“The Royal Batavia Opera Company,” May 6, 1869.

¹⁸McClellan, “Performing Empire”, 145

¹⁹“News of the Week,” Straits Times (Singapore), November 12, 1870, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes18701112-1.2.13/.; “The Italian Opera”.

²⁰Ibid.

²¹“News of the Week,” Straits Times (Singapore), August 7, 1875, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes18750807-1.2.17.1/.

²²Nicholson, “Italian Impresarios”, 219

²³Royal Italian Opera, advertisement, Singapore Daily Times, April 17, 1879, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/singdailytimes18790417-1.2.17.4/.

²⁴“Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” Straits Times (Singapore), July 31, 1880, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes18800731-1.2.17.5.6/.; “News of the Week,” Straits Times (Singapore), August 14, 1880, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes18800814-1.2.11.1/.

²⁵“Chevalier Cagli’s Opera Troupe,” Singapore Daily Times, July 28, 1880, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/singdailytimes18800728-1.2.6.3/.

²⁶Ibid.

²⁷Nicholson, “Italian Impresarios”, 236

²⁸“Italian Opera,” Straits Times Weekly Issue, January 14, 1890, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/stweekly18900114-1.2.76.7/.

²⁹See footnote 4

³⁰Ibid.

³¹“Italian Opera at the Town Hall,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, February 22, 1900, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/singfreepresswk19000222-1.2.96/.

³²Ibid.

³³“Italian Opera”, Straits Times Weekly Issue, January 14, 1890, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/stweekly18900114-1.2.76.7

³⁴“Amy Sherwin Opera Company,” Straits Times (Singapore), March 11, 1889, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes18890311-1.2.36/.

³⁵The Willard Opera Company, advertisement, Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, September 5, 1894, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/singfreepressb18940905-1.2.11.4/. ; “The Willard Opera Company,” Straits Budget, October 15, 1895, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitsbudget18951015-1.2.125/.

³⁶“The Daron Opera Company,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, September 26, 1893, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/singfreepresswk18930926-1.2.33/.

³⁷“The Stanley Opera Company,” Straits Times Weekly Issue, March 20, 1886, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/stweekly18860320-1.2.5/.

³⁸Yammomo, “Global Currents”, 64

³⁹Ming Yen Phan, “Recalling Home: Looking at Western Classical Music in Singapore 100 Years Ago” Cultural Connections, 4 (2019): 34

⁴⁰“Iolanthe,” Straits Times Weekly Issue, October 22, 1889, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/stweekly18891022-1.2.69/.

⁴¹Edwin Arthur Brown, “Amateur Theatricals and Music” in One Hundred Years of Singapore: Being Some Account of the Capital of the Straits Settlements from its foundation by Sir Stamford Raffles on the 6th February 1819 to the 6th February 1919, vol. II ed. Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke, and Roland St. J. Braddell (London: John Murray, 1921)

This article was edited by Dr Shahril Salleh, with input from Kathy Rowland.

About the author(s)

Corey Koh, 20, started studying classical voice at six and has acquired an impressive repertoire. Corey has performed solo in Prague, Mexico, New York (Carnegie Hall), Tokyo (Suntory Hall), Vienna (Musikverein), Germany, China, Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore. He was a student of the Young Artist Program at National University of Singapore Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music studying under Professor Alan Bennett. Prior to that, he studied under Soprano Jeong AeRee. He is currently studying with Tenor Jonathan Tay. Outside of music, Corey is extremely passionate about History and Literature, and hopes to combine his love for these subjects through avenues like research.

2 thoughts on “In Search of Singapore’s Early Opera History”

  1. What a well written article and lots of research finding the correct facts, dates, name of companies and performances
    Well don’t Corey ! I think from my own history knowledge there isn’t any research on this topic and when I read it. It does brings back memories of the music scenes in spore
    Keep it up. So proud of you and your achievements Aim for the sky !!

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