Malaysia's first contemporary Malay opera has a suitably operatic subject: Puteri Saadong, a legendary princess, is said to have killed a man with a hairpin.
Among many dramatic episodes of her life, as told through Opera Puteri Saadong by D’Catz At Work and Universiti Teknologi Mara’s (UiTM) music faculty, there’s also murder, mayhem, mystery, magic, and plenty of classically-trained singers.
The production features an unconventional mix of traditional cultural elements like gamelan and mak yong with contemporary Western-style operatic compositions like arias. A traditional ensemble, comprising mainly percussive instruments, will play alongside a 16-member choir and a 25-piece chamber orchestra. There will be some narration, too, by veteran actor Datuk Ahmad Tarmimi Siregar.
This complex mix took about two years to emerge from music director and composer Dr Tazul Tajuddin. “I had a grant to research traditional music like mak yong, which is difficult to notate because it is mostly improvisation,” says the UiTM associate professor. “But I managed to do it, and I inserted it into the production ... which makes the music really complex.”
Tazul’s pedigree tends towards complexity. He was the first Malaysian to win Japan’s prestigious Toru Takemitsu Composition Award in 2002. In 2005, he won Poland’s Lutoslawski Composition and Britain’s New Millennium Composition Commission awards. In Malaysia, he was nominated for the 2012 Merdeka Award.
The opera’s gestation has an even longer history. It was first discussed seven years ago between Tazul and Syafinaz Selamat, a classically trained singer, pop star, singing competition judge and voice lecturer. “I’ve always said that I want to take on a lead role, so naturally, it has to be a princess!” Syafinaz says, laughing.
Choosing the princess was the next step, as Malaysia has plenty of legendary royal women. They decided on the story of Kelantanese princess Puteri Saadong who, though betrothed to another, captures the roving eye of the King of Siam. A mystical sanggul (hairpin) keeps the worst of his amorous advances at bay, but it comes at a hefty price.
“It's a really dramatic and tragic story,” says Syafinaz of her character’s plight. “For years and years I was away from my country, but when I return I find that my husband has not kept his word, and that’s where I go totally crazy.”
No doubt, the tale of Saadong, set in the mid-17th century, isn't as popular as Johor’s Puteri Gunung Ledang. “But this is exactly why we decided on this story,” says Tazul. “I also like that it has lots of dramatic elements woven into it, as well as a strong female lead and a mysterious ending.”
As Saadong, Syafinaz has the total fairytale package: beauty, charm and intelligence. I'm reminded of this several times during interviews with the cast and crew of the production. But suitors beware: Saadong is also strong, spirited and with magical powers.
Other cast members include Hafiz Askiak as Raja Abdullah, Mak Chi Hoe as Raja Narai of Siam, Khairunnisa Diyana as Saadong's adoptive mother, and Rachel Tan as the king’s second wife.
Syafinaz says she found her role challenging because mak yong isn't something she's very familiar with. Describing the music as “intricate”, the lyrical soprano says that learning to sing mak yong was a whole new experience.
“It is difficult, especially as I have to be on stage for all five acts. But I am happy to take on this challenge,” says Syafinaz, one of the more popular judges and mentors on singing competition TV shows like One In A Million and Akademi Fantasia.
Syafinaz is also choir director and conductor of the Permata Seni Koir. She was awarded the Asean Leading Performance Artist at the 2014 Asean Outstanding Business Awards. In April 2014, she performed for US President Barack Obama at the King’s palace during his visit to Malaysia.
“I love acting,” she gushes, “but most of my time is spent singing or lecturing, I just don’t have the time to do as much as I want. So I am really looking forward to this role as Puteri Saadong.”
■ Opera Puteri Saadong will be staged Friday & Saturday at 8:30pm and Sunday at 4:30pm at Pentas 1, Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre, Jalan Strachan, off Jalan Ipoh, Sentul Park. Tickets are RM108, RM78 and RM48. Go to klpac.org or call (03) 4047-9000. The show also plays on Feb 7, 8:30pm and Feb 8, 2:30pm at the Penang Performing Arts Centre, 3H-3A-1 Quay One, Straits Quay, Jalan Seri Tanjung Pinang, Tanjung Tokong. Tickets are RM88, RM63 and RM33. Go to penangpac.org or call (04) 899-1722. The play is in Malay with English and Malay surtitles, and runs approximately 80 minutes without intermission.