When Korean soprano and teacher Jeong Ae Ree sees the first show from her newly created opera company, she hopes it will put an end to questions about the 2009 ‘sex scandal’ that has become inextricably linked with her name.
Jeong, 43, has spent 15 years singing and teaching youngsters in the city – but is just as well known for the night she spent with Dr Silviu Ionescu, then the Romanian chargé d’affaires to Singapore, who hit three men in a drunken hit-and-run accident, killing one of them. Jeong had hitched a ride home from him just before the accident took place, and was a key witness at the ensuing trial.
‘He invited me to an event at the Shangri-La Hotel, and later to a birthday party,’ she says of an event that was twisted into a tale of sex, showbiz deals and glamorous parties – all of which she claims isn’t true, at least on her part. ‘Why the press treated me the way they did, I can never understand,’ says Jeong, who is married to SSO principal cellist Chan Wei Shing. ‘I suppose people just want something juicy to talk about. What can I do, really?’
One thing she has done is launch the New Opera Singapore company, which will put on its inaugural show of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore (‘The Elixir of Love’) this month. Says Jeong of the nonprofit group: ‘There are so many good young singers in Singapore, but there’s no platform for them to perform and excel in, nowhere for them to show their excellence. I hope that through New Opera Singapore we can raise them closer towards international standards, and give the community some quality entertainment at the same time.’
New Opera Singapore is in many ways the culmination of a career that has been as much about teaching others as it has been about her own performances, which have regularly received rave reviews locally and abroad. Since arriving in Singapore in 1997, she has taught many of the city’s top young singers, including Janani Shridhar, who at 15 won the HSBC Young Artist Award in 2005 and went on to win first prize at the UK’s Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod.
Now her focus is on New Opera Singapore’s local version of L’Elisir d’Amore – a comedy written in 1832 about the poor peasant Nemorino, who falls in love with the beautiful lady Adina – which takes the original rural setting and moves it into a modern factory. But more important than modernising old operas is Jeong’s promise to shine the spotlight on local talent. David Charles Tay, 27, who plays Nemorino, was taught by Jeong in Singapore and is effusive about his mentor. ‘Ms Jeong is one of the most passionate and dynamic people I know, and has been the driving force of this company,’ he says.
‘Her dedication and vision are what inspired me to want to be a part of this in the first place – [her wish] to create a quality platform for opera, for young musicians and singers in Singapore. Whether it is talking to sponsors, managing rehearsals or just letting more people know about New Opera, she simply doesn’t stop.’
As for harnessing suitable talent for this project, help came from Jeong’s husband Chan, who brought her to the Little Red Dot in the first place after they met at music school in Graz, Austria. Chan, who has been conducting in schools for more than ten years (in addition to his SSO cello duties), helped pick out the singers for New Opera Singapore, and will be conducting the ensemble cast of soloists, chorus and orchestra. Their inaugural production is a great opportunity to see the latest generation of local opera talent in action – don’t miss it.
L’Elisir d’Amore is at the SIA Theatre, Lasalle College of the Arts from 20-22 Jul.