Penang’s Operatic Past: A Legacy of Passion and Dedication

By Sheryl Teoh

May 2024 FEATURE
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The cast of Hansel and Gretel.

IT HAS BEEN two decades since the last big-scale Italian opera was staged in Penang; it is almost unthinkable now to imagine that this quiet little island would have witnessed something so grand. After all, the late Kee Phaik Cheen, whom The Wall Street Journal dubbed the “Godmother of Penang” and who had great love for the state, had griped about it being “a cultural desert” to Fumihiko Konishi, the Founder of the Texchem Group of Companies, but perhaps better known as the halal sushi magnate.

For a man of his accomplishments and social stature, Konishi is relatively low-profile; but his private residence in Taman Jesselton, an exquisite Italian villa-styled mansion called Villa Primavera, is widely admired and talked about—so much so that funnily enough, Google lists it as a tourist attraction.

There were many rumours about who owns this prime real estate. Among these, the residence of the Ambassador of Japan hit closest to the truth: for one thing, Fumihiko Konishi is a Japanese national who has lived, toiled and revelled in Penang for 51 years. For another, he is an “ambassador” of sorts—having been awarded a Certificate of Commendation from the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Japan for his contribution to the relationship between Malaysia and Japan. Curiously, Konishi has also been a passionate ambassador of Italian culture in Penang, especially classical operas.

A Match Made in Heaven

Lim Kean Siew & Co, a premier law firm in Penang, was not only churning out the best lawyers of its time, but was also the powerhouse behind the first opera production in Penang—possibly even in Malaysia. Headed by culture and arts enthusiasts Pamela Ong and Gerard Chan, who were respectively also the President and Secretary of Penang Arts Council (PAC), the office buzzed with activity come opera season—which, I have come to understand, took up six to eight months of the year.

The first operas produced by PAC were rudimentary; with only one piano in Dewan Sri Pinang, without substantial funding and the necessary technical know-how, Pamela and Gerard somehow managed to cobble together their first opera, The Marriage of Figaro (in 1987), and followed that up with Dido and Aeneas (in 1988). Initially, singers flown in were put up in people’s homes (Copthorne Orchid Hotel later became one of their early sponsors of hotel stays) and the entire production was contracted out of the UK, with English producers assembling the set, costume designs and the lighting and sound. They would send the blueprint and designs to Lim Kean Siew & Co, out of whose offices Pamela and Gerard operated, who would then source local carpenters and tailors to build the set and make the costumes. As part of PAC’s effort to promote young talents in Penang, these operas featured promising local singers in supporting parts, with the chorus being also entirely local.

By the third year running, classical operas were an annual affair in Penang. Così fan tutte (1989), Mozart’s rom-com opera, had a professional director for the first time, and had begun to resemble proper opera productions found in the UK. It was also Così that PAC took to Singapore—after which, Leow Siak Fah, hailed as a pioneer of western opera in Singapore, started the fledgling Singapore Lyric Opera and engaged Tom Hawkes as its first director. In some way, it could be said that Così kick-started the classical opera scene there.

Cast of The Barber of Seville.

Over time, more artistic liberties were taken and local idiosyncrasies were incorporated into the operas. The cast in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, for example, were completely decked out in Balinese costumes; meanwhile, The Mikado made use of Chinese opera costumes, and local humour and current affairs were injected into the dialogues, much to the audience’s delight. Gerard, who was involved in various capacities in the operas ranging from stage manager to chorus master, recalls renting the costumes from Lebuh Keng Kwee and getting the makeup artists to do full Chinese opera makeup on the ensemble.

Although PAC engaged big names in the opera scene such as Mark Shanahan and Richard Suart, the Penang coordinating team had by then started to get the hang of the business, and there was also much more local input in the operas; the backstage people, the prop mistress, the set designs were soon taken over entirely by local talents.

Being an opera and classical music buff himself, and a generous patron of the arts and culture in Penang, Konishi, through his company Texchem, started to fund the operas staged by PAC, allowing the productions to be much bigger and more elaborate than their earlier counterparts.

Impressed by the full-scale operas being put on in Penang, the Malaysian Minister of Culture, Arts and Tourism approached Konishi to replicate them in KL in the early 2000s. Madame Butterfly, held in Sunway Hotel in 2002, was attended by then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed, who enjoyed the English-subtitled performance.

“Why don’t you do it again next year, in Istana Budaya?” Mahathir asked, keen on promoting the newly built cultural centre.

Unable to reject the Prime Minister, Konishi did exactly that—at an eye-watering cost of RM1mil. As part of its 30th anniversary celebration, Texchem, “as a way of giving back something to the community for cultural goodwill”, fully sponsored Puccini’s last opera, Turandot, in Penang and then in KL. The three-day production at each location featured two separate casts comprising about 140 talents backed by approximately 80 musicians from the National Symphony Orchestra. A colossal project indeed.

Gerard Chan and Khoo Hooi Lay in Balinese costumes for The Magic Flute. Gerard played one of the priests and Khoo played Pappagena.

A Labour of Love

Staging an international-standard opera is not for the faint of heart, especially in a place as small as Penang. As an art form prized and appreciated for its extravagance, intricacy and sophistication—last year, Italian opera singing was added to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage—it is not very forgiving either. So, to pull off what PAC did in the late 80s and 90s was nothing short of magical.

“We had over 30 people in the office including 10 lawyers and everyone was involved: the staff, secretaries, accountants… my legal office was like an opera house!” Pamela said.

When Texchem became involved, Konishi too, mobilised his corporate personnel to assist the coordinating team wherever necessary.

With the staggering sums and gruelling effort thrown into the productions, PAC and Konishi’s goodwill in bringing high culture to the country eventually became more painful than gratifying.

“The sale of the tickets can never be commensurate with the cost of production, of course. But when we did Carmen in KL, we sold only 30% of the tickets—even though you could get them for as low as RM50! In the end, we had to give the remaining seats out for free to Universiti Malaya students to make it a full house.”

Disheartened by the lack of appreciation and interest among the Malaysian public towards classical operas, Carmen (2004) was the last one to be produced by PAC and Texchem.

The operas were “a wonderful opportunity for our local vocalists, musicians and technicians to work on big projects with acclaimed and well-trained foreign professionals,” and “the Malaysian arts scene gains with every offering to the public,” Elaine Tan, who was part of Turandot’s production team wrote.

Indeed, fresh and aspiring Malaysian talents who had performed in these operas did move on to do big things in their music and arts careers. In fact, the impact these performances had on the growth of the Malaysian arts scene by raising the standards of local performers was unparalleled. Joe Sidek, best known for the curation of the internationally renowned George Town Festival, whom Pamela approached for costume design in Turandot and Carmen, also credits her for his big break in the arts industry. He is now the new President of PAC, with Gerard Chan as the Vice President.

“You are either a good or bad singer. Malaysia has some really excellent opera performers but they are not given enough opportunities to shine. Texchem’s sponsorship was definitely a much appreciated effort in helping promote opera as an art form here in Malaysia,” Cecilia Yap, an illustrious, award-winning soprano from Malaysia noted.

Konishi still holds classical concert performances and recitals in Villa Primavera, but to a more modest, private audience whom he personally invites. There have also been smaller-scale opera performances in Penang since, such as those by Pro Musica. While it still remains to be seen whether Penang is now ready for a revival in classical operas, this much is known—it takes passionate, spunky people like Pamela for it to be a worthy endeavour. But with veterans like Joe Sidek and Gerard Chan at the helm of the newly revived PAC, perhaps there is hope after all.

  • [1]
  • [2] Texview Newsletter
  • [3] The Star, 9 March 2021.
Sheryl Teoh

holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Linfield College, a liberal arts college in the United States, and majored in History with a focus on Classical Greece and Rome. Her interests include the study of philosophy as well as a range of humanities and socio-political issues.