Ee Ping has starred in several SLO productions, including Don Giovanni (pictured).
Though she moved to the UK at age 16 to study at the Guildhall School of Music, Singapore-born soprano Yee Ee Ping has never been too far removed from her hometown. Now 38, the performer and teacher still resides in London (she teaches singing at the Westminster Cathedral Choir School), where her lush, lyrical voice has earned her engagements across Europe – as well as numerous roles in the Little Red Dot. This month, she’s back to take on one of the biggest challenges of her career: the title role in the Singapore Lyric Opera’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.
‘For me, every job is a golden and good opportunity,’ says the diva of her international schedule. She doesn’t have plans to move from London, where she’s settled with a British husband and kids, but it’s possible ‘should I get a good offer in a Singapore institute,’ she says. Plus, these days, she goes by a shortened name – a nod to Western audiences. ‘I dropped my surname in 2000 because Ee Ping is much easier to remember,’ she explains. ‘In Europe, the name Yee Ee Ping can be a little confusing sometimes.’
Ee Ping’s SLO debut came in 1989 for a production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen (in which she played Micaëla), and she’s maintained close ties with the company since, with recent supporting roles in Mozart’s The Magic Flute (2010, as the First Lady) and as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni last February. ‘This is the very first time I’m singing Manon Lescaut, so I can sing and see it through a fresh perspective,’ she says of her lead role this month. ‘Puccini for me is very instinctive and comfortable to sing – I’ve sung Madama Butterfly six times. His music is so well written for the voice, my voice fits around it naturally, like a second skin.’
First premiered in 1893, the opera was one of Puccini’s first great successes, paving the way for the likes of La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. Based on a novel by Abbé Prévost, the opera follows the tragic figure of Manon, a materialistic girl who leaves her lover for a life of luxury with a richer man. Her attempt to have both her desired riches and win back her true love eventually led to her tragic demise in the middle of the Louisiana desert. The music is lush, intense and emotional in the sweeping style Puccini is famous for, and is particularly demanding in what it requires from the soprano singing the title role.
‘The role is very interesting, going from a shy girl who is supposed to go to a convent, to marrying an older gentleman for his riches, to eloping with the man she loves, going to prison and then dying in the desert,’ says Ee Ping. ‘Musically, it’s very exposed and a good test for a soprano.’
In the production, she’ll be joined by a strong cast of regional players including Korean tenor Lee Jae Wook, who takes on the role of Des Grieux, Manon’s lover. Local players include tenor Melvin Tan and baritones William Lim and Martin Ng, as well as everywhere-at-once conductor Joshua Kangming Tan leading the SLO Orchestra and Choir.
Directing the production will be award-winning American stage director and choreographer E Loren Meeker, who has worked with opera companies across the US – including the Central City Opera and the San Francisco Opera. She makes her Asian debut with this opera.
Meeker says of the theatrical challenges of Manon Lescaut: ‘I feel it is important to create a production that is relevant to today’s audiences. To achieve this, the design team and I have developed a modern production that focuses on large themes and emotions that permeate Puccini’s opera – love, lust and passion, the feeling of being trapped in your environment, the struggle to choose between material desires and the desires of your heart. Exploring these subjects through a character as intriguing and complicated as Manon is a wonderful challenge.’
Manon Lescaut is at the Esplanade Theatre on 31 Aug-4 Sep.