Runs on food and music, will sing for chips and pasta.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

FB post dated November 30th - "Picking the winner"

How do you pick a winner in a singing competition?  An overall polished performance but safe, making less mistakes but pushing no further than being safe, versus a risk-taker in pushing one's boundaries and bringing the audience to the edges with raw emotions and heart, display fair amount of vulnerability and imperfections.  An ideal winner is of course a combination of both great skills and great emotions but when you have to pick one, how do you do it?

I learned something this morning, maybe not exactly something completely new to me but definitely something I should spend more time thinking about.  

Was on the panel of judges for 2013 World Children's Day Refugee Talent Competition, organized by UNHCR Malaysia. Six of us, three judges from the dance field (Cecilia Yong, Amar Singh and Gonzalo..didn't get his name proper) and three of us from the music field - Reza Salleh, Arif Akhir and myself. 

The children were being judged based on ability, stage presentation and audience appeal for their singing and dancing performance. There were only six finalists in each category and their age group vary from eight years of age to teenagers.  Being children and still fresh on stage, it wasn't hard recognizing who had the best singing technique and who did better in appealing to a live audience and performing on stage.  Choosing the winner at first seemed easy, the gap between the finalists was obvious - but the exchange of a few words with my fellow judges before I was ushered to hand in my final score - gave me new insights into the world of `judging a winning performance'.

We all agreed that deciding on a winner under this sort of circumstances is hard - the children's skills vary quite a bit, they obviously have very different background (though were all refugees in Malaysia), they all excel in different aspects of performance of singing.  

So when it came to time to put down the pens and choosing the one for top marks this morning, it was also time to decide what the judges were going to reward - do we pick the performance that showed us power of trusting, faith and soul, or do we pick the performance that displayed just adequate skills and flair?  

In my heart, really, despite the cliche we have all heard, all the kids were winners to me - they have all won because they had stepped out of their comfort zone, invested their time, resources, heart and soul into the project, braved the nerves, and faced the panel and audience, bared themselves `naked' and be the subject of judgement for 5 minutes.  That's how much (and more) artists and performers are willing to sacrifice for their craft, and art.  

Opss...I have digressed. Back to the crunch time of decision this morning - there were three of us on the singing panel.  The winner was the little 8-year old girl who went for her faith, sang with truck loads of gusto and heart, gave dynamics in her singing and basically, she bite the bullet.  Yes she still lack  finesse in her vocal control and technique.  But she has those other elements that would send her to a different place all together, when she acquire more technique later, if she doesn't stop singing after today.

For someone who is obsessed with the importance of training and technique, I am guilty of bringing my classroom and my singing teacher with me (inside my head) on stage.  But I love telling stories and connecting my live performance with the people in front of me, so it's usually a close fight between the heart and head.  I think the heart usually wins - that means I'd go back stage later, cursing and wishing I had more practice and that my pitching and production were more put-together.  But after this morning's experience, I am reminded of the meaning and spirit of a live performance - the bottom line should transcends learned skills and technique, and it should be about making a shared experience that aims to change something in the audience, move a few souls in the room, stir up imaginations or memories, taking people to places with the singing (dancing, acting..etc) - and sometimes it won't come from being the best in technique.  

I need to stress again, my point is that technique is VERY IMPORTANT in performing arts, but it won't be the sole deciding factor in a winning performance.  

So many factors make a performance special and memorable, so many things at stake when you're on stage, the performer is both powerful and vulnerable…guess that's part of the allure of this thing called performing arts huh?  

Thank you Reza Salleh for  your insightful thoughts and Ariff Akhir for letting me pick your brains :)

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Friday, November 22, 2013

FB post dated November 22 - "Classical music is not irrelevant"

"Holy cow, we are not irrelevant! We are revolutionary!" - Joyce DiDonato (watch this clip!)

For those who think singing or playing classical music has no future or is irrelevant in this day and age, please listen to this interview with a great American musician and singer, Miss DiDonato. Her story makes me want to spend more time thinking about how the distance between everyday people and classical and opera music was created (intentionally or unintentionally I don't know) and `systematically' maintained through time.

If we continuously only feed the public what's deemed the most hip and popular musical products (for a lack of better word), am afraid we are driving our beloved public, which include our children, our families and friends - to a future where their taste for art and music (among other important decisions in their lives) is no more than what the electronics are feeding to them, what the rest of the YouTubers are watching, what other people are `viraling' over Facebook.

Occasionally here in town, although in too small the amount, we are served with classical music. But rarely, or hardly ever, the General Public are given any chance of being exposed to an art so naked, and visceral and honest (no sound system, no super dancers hanging from the ceiling, no distracting costumes, no sets). What we don't try, we don't know.

I am for one, guilty of wanting to be safe, and disallow myself the chance of bridging the gap between the public to figures like Rossini, Strauss..and more. Maybe people like me and my other colleagues need to think deeper into this - how can we bring more real, naked, honest (not packaged) classical to the general public, and let them decide if it is worth their time and heart?

I applaud those producers (thank you EST folks for staging Carmen this year), artistes, theatre companies and art platforms who stay true in their beliefs of naked and real art form, who staged and produced musicals and plays chosen not because everybody in town knows the work but because the work is worth knowing.

Thanks to Miss DiDonato, always an inspiration for being stubbornly humble and sincere, and serious about her work. Thank you Tan Sin Sim for sharing this clip that provoked my ponder this morning.

Let's hope this could spur some thinking into some of us, how can we contribute in our own little way (or big if you are capable) in bringing classical music closer to young people, and the general public? -- Scott X Woo, can you bring back those wonderful LRT-station impromptu singing?

Watch this clip, and am sure there are thousands of other similar stories around the world to prove that classical music is not irrelevant in this electronic world. It is revolutionary. #janetleemusic #janetreads #janetreflects #opera #classicalmusic

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FB post dated November 15th - "I can always go to her next gig."

This morning I feel clever - An ironic observation I've recognized: if you're an active performer in the live music scene, chances of your gigs being overlooked by your friends and families are high because it's very likely that people think that they can ALWAYS catch your NEXT gig. Like how you'd tell yourself, I can ALWAYS use my condo swimming pool TOMORROW if I want to, it's just right there when I take a lift down  and then a year later you realize, haha, the swimming pool ended up never been visited in the last 12 months.

When it is convenient and accessible, we take things/people for granted - isn't that true?

For artistes who only make public stage appearances once in a blue moon, their friends/fans and families would flock to go catch it, thinking oh they mustn't miss it because it's hard to come by, etc.

So be careful the next time YOU think you could always catch that artiste's NEXT GIG - you might end up never getting to her gigs for thinking exactly that. Human nature  I do that too. But for the better half of you who knows me, I go in and out of theaters and concerts and gigs to watch others like breathing - though it taxes greatly on my wallet I deem it necessary to watch others perform, like how breathing is necessary for my survival.

Having said that, it's most convenient now for me to update and remind you of my upcoming performances  my gigs aren't that regular but they are there sometimes…

1) Two Shanghai-Jazz Fridays with Janet Lee at Hakka Republic
Nov 15th (tonight) - 930pm at Hakka Republic with Toro Cheng Pin Xuan,Ken Chung & Terrence Ling

2) Nov 22nd (next Friday) - 930pm Hakka Republic with Ee Jeng HinFly Bassman II & Charles Wong

3) 'Bosom Buddies' - a cabaret show with Zalina Lee & Janet Lee
January 31st & February 1st - 10pm at Alexis Bistro Ampang with Toro Cheng's band

Come if you can, don't come if you must stay away 
#janetleemusic #klgigs #theatre #shanghaijazz #jazz #hakkarepublic#cabaret

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FB post dated November 14th - "Shut the fuck up at concerts."

Attended a lovely concert last night with some colleagues in the music circuit.  The experience was marred by a few issues.  I could forgive the Arctic-like, severe and intensely bone-chilling drafts of the air-cond that blew right on top of us from 830pm to 11pm.

But I can't quite rest my heart at the `sakit-hati-ness' of the behavior of the audience.  For the reason that I think what I have observed last night reflect a much bigger issue facing the…youth of our society today.

We were sandwiched by a row of elderly audience behind us and a group of four young ladies/girls who sat in front of us.  At numerous occasions during the intimate moments of the performance there were audible chatter behind us - please note that it was chatter, not whispers.  In front of us where we had no choice but to look between the four heads belonging to the four young ladies, to enjoy the consummate performance on stage.

The performance featured vocalists, a jazz band and contemporary dancers.  For the most part of the evening whenever the dancers make appearance, the girls in front first watched (though I think it looked more like they were gawking), then exchanged remarks among themselves, then giggled uncontrollably…non-stop.

Now, how the dancers' performance fitted into the music performance is another issue - but the fact that these young people (ok, I am assuming by merely guessing that they look young, they look early twenties to me) thought it was okay to start a forum about the performance right there in the middle of the concert, among other audience - is beyond my best effort tolerance.

I practice self-censorship consciously in all my self-published content - blogs, FB tweets, instagram, etc.  Outside of the cyber world I try my level best to do the same.  As I age I put in more effort in behaving myself in public, when dealing with frustrating people, I try to put peace and solving a problem before satisfying my urge to reprimand - I really try, trust me - I used to be a lot louder and wouldn't think twice about telling someone off in public, loud.

At the beginning of the concert I turned to the chatting elder-lies behind me and smiled first, gestured for them to shut their gaps and said softly, "I want to listen to his singing."  I looked into the pair of eyes I met, sitting behind me, on a face of a woman who clearly looked old enough to be my mom - they looked happy to be at the concert…except they really didn't know how to stop their chatters in a concert like that.

Unfortunately for me, I was expecting a lot more from the girls in front of us.  They were young people who were clearly privileged enough to attend such a classy event - a live music concert; they looked like they are at university-attending age and they each had a piece of paper with them and they would sometimes write something on the papers in the dark (I wish I knew what the papers were).

The four of us behind the girls watched the show patiently, it was a long and cold night.  Towards the end of the performance the lead performer engaged us in a most soulful, and quiet ballad, featuring a dancer.  One of the girls continued her antics of mocking the performance by covering her mouth, stopping herself from laughing, and exchanged words a few times with her neighbor.  I decided to talk to her, I tapped her lightly on the shoulder and said, "This is closing to the end already, could you please pay attention to the stage?"

The girls didn't quite stop their gawking and giggles after that but their moronic behavior was reduced.  I could tell that the girl whom I tapped was dying (inside of herself) to take a good look at me and stare right down at me.  After the show I spoke to some musicians about audience etiquette.  Our conclusion was that - the older bunch had no idea that talking during a performance is fucking rude - they simply had no idea what renders appropriate behaviour at concerts.

The young ones?

Many people talk of Malaysians being people lacking in exposure of worldly things - specially in the arts and music industry.  Comments like, "Yalah they don't know ma what world-class standard is like."  "Not bad already for a Malaysian/local show." …..etc.

My point is, long winded as this entry is (apologies) - so yes, we are village folks, we don't know any better, but are we ready to remove ourselves from our narrow-mindedness and our so-called `backwardness'?  And for those of us who know better - are you ready to educate and help open the eyes of those who don't any better yet?

So if you know that when you attend a live performance with three hundred other audience in the auditorium, you are to put your phone on silent, and leave conversations with your friends for appropriate break of the performance - would you do something to ensure that your fellow audience do the same?

Or would you just sit there and ignore the bad behavior for the sake of peace? Of avoiding making a scene?

A few years ago I sharply told a mother off for talking to her family (a pair of parents and two teenagers) during a performance in a theatre.  This lady received several warnings from other member of the audience during the show - "Please keep quiet, I didn't pay to hear you talk, I paid to watch him dance." etc.  So on my way out of the auditorium I stopped by her seat and told her that she really shouldn't be a bad example to her children.  Her reply was, "No we didn't talk, we didn't do anything wrong. I don't know what you're talking about."

Later on at the foyer of the theatre I saw her again, again I approached her and told her that everyone who sat near her could she and her family talked during the show, ahem, she was so good she actually scolded me and called me a bitch loudly…with people near us who looked on, disdainfully.

I rest my case.  Again, I apologized for the lengthy writing to illustrate one point.

Again, my question again - if you know better in being a worldly person with manners, would you care enough to educate the others to improve themselves?  Clearly, if there are not many of people like me around to single out the spoiled kids like the ones we encountered last night at Tribute To Yao Ming's opening concert - I would always look like the bitch who is self-righteous and a snob who tell people off.

The road to a more mature society, getting to the first-world country…and all, seems very long and cold.

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Monday, November 04, 2013

"The Maid" - my Butterfly Lovers journey, a theatre love story

I started this entry a few months ago when I was recalling all my fondest theatre memories - and decided I should dedicate an essay to my experience in Butterfly Lovers.  Writing this essay has enabled me to relived some of my pet memories as a performer.  I started this piece in August and didn't finish it until today - two weeks over after our last performance on October 20th.

(all the pics in this post are from the 2013 production) 

Seven years ago, I attended an audition for a Chinese musical in KL, under the encouragement of my then singing teacher Cha Seng Tiang.   I prepared an old Chinese song after painstakingly looking up something simple that I could pull off singing a capella without making lots of mistake.  Now thinking back, I really can't remember if I sang 我有一段情 or 一帘幽梦 but I think it's either one of these.

I was required to do a short reading too from the script of the musical.  I remember some struggling to make my lines smooth, with some effort of acting.  Then in 2006, I would have stopped speaking and writing Mandarin since I left high school in 1995 (or was it 1996?) for a decade... A decade.

So my script-reading was half-cooked, my singing of that oldie probably got me better score with the audition.  Whatever happened that afternoon in the Dama Orchestra audition room, won me an offer from the company to play the role of YinXin, the personal maid to Zhu Ying-Tai, the oriental Yentl, or Juliette.   The musical was Butterfly Lovers The Musical. It would run at KLPac Pentas 1 in October 2006.

Just fresh out of the production of Saidah Rastam's M! The Opera in April 2006, and previously at Pygmalion The Musical by KLPac (October 2005) - I was newly independent - just touching a year after I left my last day job as a booker in a modeling agency.  I dived head in into the 4-month long rehearsal period for Dama Orchestra's first full length musical; and my first Mandarin theatre experience.  Little did I know then that would be my major stepping stone, launching me into my first step of becoming what I am today - a bilingual cabaret performer of a sort.

The acting rehearsals were grueling, I worked very hard to reciprocate the private coaching sessions that were arranged for me.  Though I spent almost all of my school life in Chinese medium school, the state of my Mandarin then needed lots of work.  Thing was that YinXin doesn't have a lot of lines in this script, even though she is on stage all the time.  I recorded all of my close to fifty odd lines that I have in the entire musical on a CD, and played that over and over again in my car so I could practice in the traffic.

It was quite close to a perfect place to be, for an inexperienced stage actor - I was cast to do a role that has just enough lines to be heard in the show; just a couple of singing lines to be noticed that I could carry a tune decently (in Mandarin); am on stage 80% of the time (YinXin is in ten scenes out of twelve scenes in the two act musical) - way enough air time for someone new like me to prove that I could deliver what I have learned during the tedious acting rehearsals.

I really could not thank Kai Loon and Seng Chew enough for having faith in me and trusted me with the role.  In all of my cluelessness back then, I probably did not realise what important roles these little supporting roles like Yin Xin and Si Jiu play in an epic love tale such as Butterfly Lovers.  I understand it much better now, in 2013.

Prior to the rehearsals from June 2006 to September 2006, I didn't have much exposure in acting.  I played ensemble member and mostly and all my stage movements were choreographed by directors or choreographers.  In Butterfly Lovers I had to move as a living, breathing individual, who goes through a myriad of dramatic emotions, with solo singing and speaking lines, to complement and support the leading actors and story.

I had to work from scratch to plan, workshop, choreograph my every movement on stage…step by step, with the help of Kai Loon.  I wrote down every single stage blocking for all scenes, drew out the choreography that was given to me or fixed by me.  Next to each of my dialogue I wrote down the accompanying emotion, mood, and intention, etc…on every page there are notes on my character's "B-M-E" (beginning, middle, end).  I went from a green and clueless, a fidgeting figure, to a passable, half-decent actor by the time the show opened that October 2006.

Not forgetting at all the tremendous help I received from my stage counterpart, Jason Lai, who played Sijiu (the servant to the male lead, Liang Shanbo, played by Yang Wei Han in 2006) to a T.  Jason was younger than me but a much more seasoned thespian who not only acts, but also work in different hats in the theatre.  He was our assistant stage manager too in Butterfly Lovers, besides playing Sijiu.  I learned a lot by watching Jason in action, through discussions about our scenes together, and through the massive amount of tips he generously offered to me on stage craft and acting.

The stage chemistry between Jason and I was amazing, it felt like it just happened naturally.  Jason is an incredibly giving actor and a natural in the craft.  I always feel that on stage in the show back then, Jason was the one element that saved my novice ass and made me looked good.  Off stage I had the tireless Kai Loon who would give us notes after every performance.  My friends and family, including the producers themselves (Kai Loon and Seng Chew) - were somewhat astonished that I pulled through as YinXin.  Kai Loon was proud of his work on me because he said "I couldn't recognized Janet Lee on stage."

Another reason why this role will always remain special in my heart was Justin's response to this role.  After watching the show he became incredibly impressed and amused with my `guise' on stage.  Right up to our last year together in 2010, he'd always tell me that his favorite role in all my (though limited) stage repertoire, was YinXin - because I was `so soft and gentile', playing the young maid.

So…..that was 2006.

A year later the show went to Genting Highlands for a two-weekend performance, before we flew to Perth to perform at the His Majesty's Theatre for a weekend.  The trip was a truly memorable one because of the company of the people involved in the production.  By then many friendships were formed and it was a tight team to shake.

Yup, so that was 2007.

When the offer and confirmation finally came for me to reprise my role in the show early this year, the first thing I did was to look up Jason's phone number.  I wanted to know if he would be coming back on board as Sijiu again, knowing that the producers made him an offer to come back - I know I needed him on stage for me, despite me having grown as a performer after 2007.

Expectations were high for this re-staging, the stakes are higher too this time round.  Rehearsal period had been cut to just 6 weeks from 4-months back in 2006.  Back then all I needed to do was to learn how to play YinXin well, I hardly have any conflict dates.  This time is different, I was going through a dry spell in my gig bookings in July and August.  When booking calls came in for me for gigs in late September, I had to say no.  Then more bookings came knocking for October but the musical had started its run already.  Oh well, now you know money can buy you happiness - my loss of income from other gigs bought me a special reward in staying in this production.

Anyway, I had a great start at rehearsals getting reacquainted with my lady - the now a mother of one, Tan Soo Suan,  playing Zhu YingTai again.  She has gained much experience from her past roles played in Dama Orchestra's prolific stage between 2007 to 2012.  This time round she came into the rehearsals equipped with lots of considerations and ideas for our scenes and characters, and couple with Kai Loon's new insights for the script - we put the musical together as a team, painting layers of fresh coats of dramatic nuances and more underlying stories to sharpen the story.

On board this time to play the male lead Liang Shanbo was Jun Yi, a Chinese karaoke (numerous times) champion who trains classically, also a music student in Malaysian Institute of Arts.  Jun Yi played a supporting role in Dama Orchestrea's 2009's production of I Have A Date With Spring.   It was clear at the beginning of the rehearsals that Jun Yi is a winner in singing with very little stage craft or acting knowledge and skills.

The vocabulary for stagecraft and acting is so frightening wide and bottomless.  While looking at how Jun Yi struggled in the rehearsal room for his lack of experience and skills in the said department, I couldn't help but wonder how we could bridge the gap between not-ready to being ready for the show to open on October 5th.  Soon enough it became clear to me that watching how Jun Yi and colleagues work together to close that gap is the single-most precious experience for me in this re-staging.

You see theatre will always hold a soft spot in my heart for exactly that - the exposure to others' vulnerabilities and their journeys.  I remember in vivid colors those magic moments and incidents from my various rehearsal room experience when I discovered I have fallen in love with theatre.  The first time was during one of the my long-waits at the sitzprobe for Tosca back in 2003, I was in the chorus of Tosca, incredibly little stage time.  I was listening half-heartedly to Lily Zhang (a Chinese soprano who sang Tosca, the other Tosca in the same staging was Nancy Yuen from Singapora/HK) rehearsing with the orchestra for one of her arias, her long sustained pianissimo notes, the string sawing away with her, as if tearing Tosca's heart apart as she laments about her cursed life as an artiste.. suddenly it hits me that that Puccini music was pulling my heart strings and the sound of Tosca soaring admits the strings were madly beautiful…I fell in love being surrounded by theatre and opera.

The second time was that afternoon on the cold cold floor of that Vision Four warehouse space that we used for rehearsal for M! The Opera, I was lying on the floor listening to Khir Rahman (who played M, the lead of this contemporary opera by Saidah Rastam &amp and Jit Murad) rehearsing a haunting solo, his hauntingly soulful cries made my toes curled, my heart cried along with M - the tortured artiste but my soul was smiling from inside out because the words and the music were too beautiful to a good way.  I thought to myself, what a swell life this is, to be surrounded by magic in the making, day in day out.

From then on, the rehearsal period for theatre productions remain my favorite part of being involved in theatre.  This time in Butterfly Lovers, I was privileged to be able to witness how Jun Yi grew from that timid person at rehearsals to a tall, handsome and divine-sounding leading man - I call this the 'Zero To Hero' story.   I treasure those precious mamak sessions after rehearsals at night where we would discuss work, vent frustrations and prep-talk, encouraged each other for the next day's work.

And then we bumped in, it was the beginning of the end in no time.  No time to waste at the theatre, audience waiting to come in.  Call time, make up time, meal time, sound check time, warm ups, calls to positions, get inside your character's head and stay there till the curtain call starts.

It feels like it all ended too soon before I could barely bid farewell to all that is special to me in this production.  I was juggling being focused and being sick during the run of this show, like a few other actors in the show.  There were exciting episodes of mishaps here and there, sick stomachs, blood, knocked bones, etc.  Jason and I had a scary fell from the high set on the day of full dress rehearsal and I still shudder at the thought of "what-ifs".

The cast party took place last week, cheques were collected, goodbyes and 'till we meet again' were exchanged, stories and jokes shared.  And yet it still feel like the chapter has not properly closed for me.  I was too distracted to find my own closure in this story - I was too sick and stressed out with other things on my mind.  Other projects gotta take place, my focus has shifted to other urgent tasks and work at hand.  I don't really have time to lament over the end of this beautiful journey. I know that I had started saying my goodbye to the musical during the production - thought it still didn't prepare me for the real goodbye…ah well!

Until I could rest YinXin in peace properly...I hope your eyes are still inside your socket if you managed to read this far.  Haha!

more photos taken during the 2013 production HERE.
for photos taken during the 2006/2007 production, click HERE.

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