VIKRAM Seth is making a big splash in Singapore. This time, for his opera, Arion and the Dolphin, which is to be performed by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) from June 29 to July 1 as part of the annual Festival of the Arts in the island republic. In a unique and expensive experiment which began last year, author Seth, British composer Alec Roth, the SSO and Singapore secondary school and junior college students, with help from the British Council, worked hard on a presentation of Seth's charming verse libretto which is expected to be showcased in a packed Victoria Theatre. Cost: (Singapore) $250,000.
Says Seth, who has an enormous readership in Singapore and created quite a stir in 1994 at the famous Queenstown Library when he recited Chinese poems in perfect Mandarin: " Arion and the Dolphin began as a kind of interruption to my larger work— A Suitable Boy — and a book of Chinese poems I was working on. But it turned out to be an interesting project. At first when Rebecca Meitliss, director of the opera, suggested I write an opera about dolphins, I shuddered. But to my surprise the idea seemed to work. What really was thrilling initially was the trip to Dingle Bay in Ireland where Alec and I actually swam with Funghi the dolphin."
To be conducted by Lim Yau, associate conductor of the SSO and music director of the Singapore Youth Orchestra, this will be the second time Arion and the Dolphin will be staged as a theatrical production. Last year it was staged in Plymouth, where it was a big hit. Roth and Seth first collaborated in 1990, when Roth put Seth's Humble Administrator's Garden, a collection of verse, to music.
According to Roth, composer with Opera North, Leeds: "We are all really excited about this project. The first time was a good opportunity to find out if the idea could work. And it did. Now, I have had a chance to revise the piece and expect it to be even more rewarding as an artistic effort. I have instilled a strong Singapore flavour to the production and we have all worked towards that end. Much of my composition is influenced by Indonesian music, gamelan in particular." The 47-year-old composer, who studied Indonesian music in Java in the '80s, was in Singapore frequently over the last year to follow the project's progress.
At its simplest, Arion and the Dolphin is a bedtime story for children about a dolphin that saves the life of a young Corinthian musician. Dumped overboard by sailors, who rob him of the gold he won in a singing competition, Arion is saved from a watery grave by a friendly, frolicking dolphin who speaks to him, feeds him and saves his life. One of the dolphins, a female, helps Arion through his struggle to survive. On another level, it is a story for young adults that juxtaposes the innocence of nature and creatures of this planet with the vile, destructive desires of human beings. The result is tragedy and irredeemable loss.
Yet more arresting is the story to the adult reader, who will probably perceive the dolphin as a symbol of sacrifice. Like the albatross which had to die for Coleridge's Ancient Mariner to recognise the importance of compassion for all living things, our Sicilian dolphin had to sacrifice herself to save Arion's life. But more so perhaps, to get the cruel king Periander to recognise his folly.
The dynamic Tisa Ng, general manager of the SSO, sees the whole project as an unpara-lelled learning experience for young people interested in music and the stage. Says Ng: "This was not a production where everyone learned their part. There was a very large creative element where the young performers were encouraged to showcase whatever talents they had. Arion is SSO's project with the longest gestation period. We put it together over a whole year. The production involved the participants in education in ecology and the composition of music."
With a renewed interest in ecology and conservation, Arion may well become a Hollywood blockbuster. And that would simply widen Seth's already huge fan club.