Melvin Tan is making waves in Belgium where, as I write, he’s been snapped up by the Flanders Opera Company’s Operastudio programme for young singers. The 32-year-old Singaporean tenor defies traditional stereotypes of singers in his vocal range, who are typically more interested in the display and bravura of opera rather than the introspection of the art song – an aspect he will be showcasing in his upcoming recital, ‘Transcendent Love’.
Tan developed a taste for singing after joining the choir in National Junior College, though, at the time, he was focusing on choral and ensemble music. When a class- and choir-mate (and now fellow professional tenor) Leslie Tay foisted a recording of Puccini’s ‘Turandot’ upon him – one featuring Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland – it planted a seed that would grow into an obsession.
His route to becoming a classical singer was hardly direct. After junior college he entered National Service, where he joined the Singapore Armed Forces Choir as a part-time member. ‘When I left Singapore after the army,’ Tan says, ‘I didn’t think that I had anything near what it took to get into a [music] conservatory. I decided to study English literature because it would give me the scope to examine works and write essays.’ While completing a master’s degree at the University of Edinburgh, Tan found his love for music blossoming and started taking his first vocal lessons. Although he was still fascinated by Shakespeare and metaphysical poets Andrew Marvell and John Donne, another creative outlet was moving to the forefront. ‘I found my interest in music not only grew, it also combined with my literature background, which focuses so much on text.’
It’s this emphasis on the interpretation of the text alongside the music that saw him gravitate towards Benjamin Britten, the composer of the majority of the pieces featured in ‘Transcendent Love’. Together with Sir Edward Elgar and Henry Purcell, Britten is considered one of the greatest composers England has ever produced – and one of the most gifted in marrying lyrics with music.
Tan will perform three of Britten’s ‘Canticles’ as well as folk song arrangements in ‘Transcendent Love’. He explains: ‘There is a religious thread that connects Britten’s five “Canticles”, but they are meant for concerts rather than liturgical use. The first is called “My beloved is mine and I am his”, and the text is taken from the song of the same name from “Songs of Solomon”, but as rewritten by Francis Quarles. It treads the line between being religious and being erotic.’
A showcase for the tenor’s emotional range and vocal ability, it is written in three parts – a coloratura opening, a fast and lively second movement and a lyrical, dramatic third section. Like most of his tenor works, Britten wrote it for his life partner Peter Pears. The second featured Canticle, ‘Abraham and Isaac’, offers a dramatic interpretation of the famous Biblical story of Abraham, whose faith is tested when God asks him to sacrifice his only son Isaac.
Tan says: ‘What’s interesting is that there are three characters in this 20-minute concert piece, but only two singers. The mezzo-soprano or countertenor sings Isaac and the tenor plays Abraham, while the voice of God is played by a combination of the two singers in an ethereal harmony.’ It’s a classic touch of brilliance on Britten’s part, but in Singapore, beyond an early performance in the ’90s of his opera ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, his works have rarely been performed.
‘I find that in Singapore, people can be afraid of unfamiliar music,’ Tan says. ‘I’ve always held the belief that Britten’s operas are some of the greatest operas out there. They are so edgy and contemporary in their outlook, and Singapore has such a great theatre scene that I think that if some of the Britten operas were performed in Singapore, it would be grasped not only by the traditional opera audience, but by the theatre audience as well.’
Tan’s enthusiasm for the composer is palpable. ‘Britten is such a fascinating character. A lot of what he did then might not even be acceptable in today’s society. His music isn’t easy music, but there are times when preparing the concert that you just do what he says on the page – you don’t even have to struggle to get into the zone. It automatically puts you into the emotional mindset of the piece.
‘These magical moments happen even in rehearsal, let alone during the thrill of the performance,’ he says. It’s just amazing what can happen with his music, and that’s one of the biggest gifts for a singer. That, and the privilege of singing his music.’
With National Day just around the corner, I ask Tan what it feels like to have left the island for so long. ‘I’ve always been very close, even having lived out of Singapore for ten years – I’ve always made sure I come back quite often, if not to sing for Singapore Lyric Opera, then to get someone to organise a recital for me. It’s so heartening to see the great work that [Tan] Szhr Ee and Nancy [Yuen] are doing at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and I feel there’s a lot more I can also contribute to the Singapore music scene. I’m proud to come from a place that still values culture. Singapore is always going to be the place where I want to share what I’ve learnt overseas.’
Melvin Tan performed in ‘Transcendent Love’ at Esplanade Recital Studio on 29 Aug 2009. This story first appeared as 'A new chapter in his life' (Aug 2009).