M! The Opera - Actually... I liked it

Love. Murder. Fashion.M! The Opera is easily one of the most anticipated Malaysian theatre events in recent times and the big question must be, "Does it deliver?". For me, the answer is yes. But, you know, it still could have been so much better.

An aside: I have to confess that I am involved with the production, albeit in a help-maintain-the-website sort of way. In return, I got to listen to a couple of rehearsals and managed to snag free tickets for a performance. I took the job because I'm such a big fan of Saidah, and I know this will be reflected below. I am unashamedly shameless of this fact.

The bloggers' reviews of the show were tepid at best, and downright scathing in general: Messy, chaotic, a big wank and worst - fled during the intermission. Strangely enough, the newspaper reviews were generally positive. Nudgenudge, winkwink, Saaaay no more.

(Incidentally, changes were made as the show went along, so it seems last week's performance and this week's one were different. TV Smith went twice, and left unimpressed; Lainie went one more time than that, and left feeling they were "much more together".)

Do I need to explain the story to you? A young boy from Kampung Baru grows up to be an acclaimed fashion designer, but his past comes round again and confronts him. I actually simplify, but you know it isn't going to end well. Read the synopsis if you want.

It was (is?) a very ambitious production. I had heard about their original staging plans ("BIG! OVERFLOWING FABRICS!"), but I also knew that the limited budget could not cope with those dreams.

And the music. My god, so layered and textured and beautiful in its complexity, sheer muslin on rich silk. Exquisite, sumptuous, and at times - inaccessible. Clever if you're a musician, but for a dumbo consumer of pop culture like me, "Wha-?". Nevertheless, there were hummable gems to be found within my reach and those I enjoyed.

The music is like one of those coarse salads, filled with chunky vegetables. You take one bite, and say, oh, it's based on traditional 60's P. Ramlee-like music, and then you take another bite and go, well, maybe more the asli rhythms, and then you try again, and you go, wow, it's Sondheim... Some said it was chaotic and a mish-mash, with no distinct style. I actually liked it, and even when it got a little crazy, you'd hear something familiar, and then go, Yeah, I Like That Bit.

But it is with great regret that I found out that they had CUT OUT MY FAVOURITE SONG from the production (at least, on the night I went to). It's called The Myth Song and it's there on the website if you want to hear a snippet of it. The main theme is typical Broadway, but it's set against a traditional chant. Beautiful. Got little shivers up the spiney when I listen to it. Instead, it was gotten rid of. Okay, I exaggerate, there were like two verses of it in the first act. But that's all. Bleuch.

Some might argue, of course it was inaccessible to proletariats - it's an opera. But what's the difference between an opera and a musical? Is an opera necessarily elitist? Is a musical necessarily hummable? Stephen Sondheim, the Man himself, says, "Opera is musical theatre that takes place in an opera house in front of an opera audience". There we go. I'm no opera audience and Istana Budaya ain't most definitely no opera house.

(For the record, the tunes that would probably make it to my iPod My Top Rated list are: Cun-kan Aku, Atelier, Yang Indah and the Myth Song)

Visually, it was, in places, stunning. But in places only. I think if they had staged it the way they originally wanted to, it would have just brought everyone to their knees. Instead, they had to make do with reams of couture (genuine, by the way, from people like Tom Abang Saufi, Bernard Chandran, Bill Keith, and Nazleen Noor). And with real models to show them off. You can tell which are the models. They're the tall thin ones who don't sing or dance very much. (Okay, I am being cruel. But they look so good, it only seems fair to balance nature out.)

The dance bits were very good, especially the wedding scene. Of course, if you haven't seen it, you won't have an idea of what I mean, but trust me, it was good. The only problem I had was that some dancers were clearly much better than others, so they kind of stood out when maybe they weren't meant to.

I thought all the principles were good, including Khir Rahman in the lead role. Within the cast, he had a very distinct singing style, more rock than Broadway. Doreen Tang, in contrast, was more classical, like operatic. Everybody else seemed to be impressed with George Chan as his rival Kerabat, and undoubtedly he has charisma, but I especially liked Maizurah Hamzah (as M's mother), both because of the songs she sang and because of her clear Malay-classic style - think Saloma. Of course, it's as much the characters as the people who play them, and it would be interesting to see others tackle the roles in different styles.

However, although they do well individually, there is no strong sense of chemistry between them. I'm not sure if it's because there aren't enough quiet moments, or because, well, there's no chemistry. It's a shame, because it's tough to empathise with these fellows when you don't get how they react to one another.

Now, maybe my biggest complaint though, is the story. They don't need complicated stories, but it should hold the interest. The basic story is actually quite sound, but... well, it needs to be bigger. More. Although people die by the end, it really didn't feel as if we lost anything. Heck, the whole cast could have been smothered in a freakish runway lycra accident, and I wouldn't have cared. It didn't feel as if the stakes were being built up to an inevitable tragic end.

Here's a suggestion. For it to be a tragic, there needs to be tragedy. Quote: "The main character is brought to ruin... especially as a consequence of a tragic flaw". The story needed a device which demonstrated how M brought about his own downfall. There had these devices cropping up, but never made full use of it. Maybe it was there, but I was blinded by obfuscation and didn't see it. Here's a free hint. Build him up as a vain man, and finally when he's finally about to be generous enough to the love of his life, one final selfish act condemns him. Classic stuff. Also, more people dying is always good for the wailing crescendos at the end.

Tell you what else. Those dang surtitles. They're meant to help non-bilingual audience members understand the story. I wish I had written down some of them. Accurate to the word (when they decided to put them up) but not much else. Painful to read. Darn distracting too.

Is this the last we'll see of M? Rumour has it that they might go on the road. The newspaper reviews were actually generous, and it was a full house every night (until the interval, at least). And it does deserve to try to find a better footing that a restaging would afford it.
posted on Sunday, April 02, 2006 - permalink
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