Fourteen-year-old Tan Wei Tian is among the youngest opera artists in Singapore.
From playing young servant Taohua in Peach Blossom Takes The Ferry to doomed lover Zhu Yingtai from The Butterfly Lovers, she has clocked about 50 performances in her 10-year opera career.
The Secondary 2 student at Nanyang Girls’ High School, who trains with non-profit organisation Nam Hwa Opera, says of the art form: “I love its expressiveness, colourful costumes, beautiful stories and how it is an important part of Chinese culture.”
Her interest in Chinese opera started with her grandparents’ love of it.
Even before she turned three, they took her to watch opera performances at the Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre in Chinatown once every few weeks.
Mesmerised by the elaborate, colourful costumes and the music, the only child soon sang the tunes at home and even did opera poses.
At times, she wore her father’s shirt and used the long sleeves as water sleeves, a feature of Teochew opera.
Her parents – an executive director of a logistics company and a headhunter – noticed her interest and soon found her a teacher.
Over the years, she learnt from teachers such as local opera practitioner Chen Guo Lai as well as ones from China.
When performances are near, mostly during the school holidays, she can spend up to 10 hours a week rehearsing – memorising lyrics, gestures and steps.
Among her friends, she admits, Teochew opera is not considered a “hip” or “fashionable” activity, but some curious schoolmates have come to watch her perform.
“They come to take selfies with me and, when they see me in full make-up, they say I look so different they cannot recognise me.”
In 2015, she participated in the Voice of Teochew acting competition, organised by Chui Huay Lim Clubwhich promotes Teochew heritage and Chinese culture, and won second place in its open category.
A year later, she clinched the inaugural New Sprouts award from the Chinese Opera Institute, which recognises emerging talents.
She also had a turn in 2014 local film Wayang Boy, in which she plays a young girl who joins her school’s Chinese opera club.
She credits her fluency in Teochew and Mandarin, as well as her confidence in public speaking, to her exposure to Teochew opera.
Mr Toh Lim Mok, 71, president of Nam Hwa Opera, says: “When she is performing, few people can tell she is 14.
“She is confident and mature enough to convey the emotions of her character. She can also act and sing well.”
Having such a young opera practitioner in his organisation is a “blessing”, he adds, as few young people are interested in Teochew opera.
“By training Wei Tian and letting her showcase her talents, we hope to inspire other youth to understand this traditional art form and, hopefully, join us in preserving it.”
A version of this article first appeared in The Straits Times
(Photo and video: The Straits Times)