Singapore Arts Fest 2005: The Busker’s Opera

The Busker’s Opera, staged by Robert Lepage and Ex Machina, featured an enthusiastic cast, some well-executed set pieces, and some ingenious props, but on the whole, it still blew.

Pointless reinventions really irk me. Completely subverting the original: potentially valuable. Just doing the original in some new context which adds nothing to the audience’s appreciation of its (the original’s) genius: bloody useless. And sadly, for the most part, I felt this play was bloody useless.

Do not believe what the writeup says, that “somewhere between the rock concert and the classical concert, between the street musicians and sharks who hold the keys to power, fame and fortune, the production reveals the artistic freedom that remains after the steamroller of the music industry has driven by.” It does not, unless artistic freedom is defined as the freedom to put on a musical production where almost every song is performed mediocrely by people with little or no stage presence, and inexplicably, a random and rather piss-poor turntablist.

Retaining the lyrics to the songs of The Beggar’s Opera, but transposing the story from the criminal underworld to “the underworld of the music industry”, did not provide the piece with a new satirical focus, it merely made the new story feel slapdash and incoherent, like one of those musicals which consist of ABBA’s/Queen’s/Madness’s greatest hits held together by a laughably threadbare plot. But at least in those you can dress up and sing along, and the songs don’t suck donkey bollocks anywhere near as much as the “New Yawk Pimp Rap” attempt did in this play.

To be fair, some parts of the production were well done. One scene is set in New Orleans, at a tiny bayou club on the edge of a swamp. In the club it’s a party with bright lights and rollicking music, but in the swamp a creepy robed lady sways menacingly to claustrophobic blues. A girl runs between the swamp and the party, and the opening and closing of the door of the bayou club triggers the switch between the PARTY!!! music and the BAD JUJU!!! music. The switch in music is done instantaneously by the band playing in the club, and the entire scene was pulled off quite impressively. Certain props were also well used, with a roving flatscreen TV displaying the words of the libretto, close-ups, and various things which would have been inconvenient to portray in the flesh (e.g. a dog), and a sort of segmented foldable screen used to make London phoneboxes, jail cells and the bayou club.

But really, these small successes were never enough to save me from the larger tedium of the evening. For anyone intending to watch it, I would recommend you try a real busker instead. It costs less, is more fun, and doesn’t go on for 119 minutes without an intermission.


  1. Ouch. And you could have instead watched a drunken Joe perform the greatest hits of singapore local rock to a packed and occasionally slightly rowdy crowd in Little India. Life is a learning process…

  2. Well, the problem with me attending Joe’s gig wasn’t so much the play (it ended at 10 so I could have rushed over) but my extreme exhaustion. I’ll be at the next one, fo’ sho’.

  3. You watched The Busker’s Opera on Wednesday? I was there too, sitting somewhere among the first five rows. I loved the Bayou club in the swamp scene as well. In spite of the talent of the musicians, though not necessarily all the singers, the show didn’t really do it for me. It was more than a little disjointed (in spite of my having read the programme beforehand) and it just lacked that certain omph.

  4. I’m going to watch this tonight! So I totally skipped reading your entry as I didn’t want any expectation of any sorts! I shall come back and read it again tomorrow… =P Hope it’s good!

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