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On a high note

Teen redefines opera in Brunei’s cultural landscape

As a teenager, the intricate dance of life involves juggling familial responsibilities, academic pursuits, and intricate social networks, leaving minimal room for extracurricular pursuits, particularly during the demanding seasons of major examinations.

As such, the decision to not only cultivate a new skill but to immerse oneself in the realm of classical music during such intense periods requires a remarkable level of tenacity and extraordinary perseverance.

 Such is the life of 17-year-old Malaysian opera singer Aaralyn Tan Wen Sze who is currently navigating her final year of ‘A’ Levels at Jerudong International School.

Aaralyn Tan Wen Sze during a performance. PHOTO: Aaralyn Tan Wen Sze

 Born and raised in Brunei Darussalam, Aaralyn shared that her initial music journey actually began in pop music, however she slowly transitioned to opera at the age of 14.

“I wanted to try something new. At first, I was hesitant; I didn’t know I had it in me. But when I went to my first classical singing lesson, I just fell in love with the sound of it,” she shared in an interview with the Bulletin.

“I also loved the challenge of taking up a difficult instrument. Even though I had no idea what any of the lyrics meant, there was just something captivating and emotive about opera that drew me in,” she added.

BEHIND THE CURTAIN

Originating in the late 16th Century in Italy, opera is a form of classical music as well as a theatrical art form that combines singing – often in an operatic style – acting, and orchestral music.

They typically feature a dramatic storyline, and the music is an integral part of conveying emotions and advancing the plot.

With the nature of opera being staged productions with different acts, akin to a musical, Aaralyn explained that there are roles for certain voice types such the soprano, which is then further broken down into sub categories like the coloratura and dramatic soprano.

The teen however admitted that due to her age, she is still in the process of discovering her voice type.

As a result, she embraces diverse roles, performing a mix of arias – solo pieces in opera – ranging from lyrical and dramatic to coloratura soprano, singing in multiple languages, including German, Italian, French, and English. Throughout her journey, Aaralyn has graced various stages with performances that showcase her evolving talent.

“My first aria I’ve ever sung was Quando M’en vo’ from La Boheme during a school assembly, and most recently Vissi D’arte from the opera Tosca, which I think is my best so far,” she said.

“Another would be Vilja, by Franz Lehar, a majestic German aria where I sung it during La Vida’s charity concert, just to name a few.”

Among her favourites however is singing Una Voce Poco Fa by Rossini.

It’s a song she adores, filled with vocal runs from one of her favourite composers and dreams of performing it on stage again someday.

NOTES OF PASSION AND PERSEVERANCE

Similar to any classical music discipline, rigorous training is essential, especially in opera where the primary instrument is the voice. The magnitude of this task is reflected in Aaralyn’s preparation for a performance.

Aaralyn typically learns a piece well in advance typically a month to three weeks ahead of the performance which span three to four minutes, though some can extend to seven minutes or longer.

Outlining her process, the teen shared that before she begins singing, she would engage in a quick warm-up routine, incorporating lip thrills, octaves and singing into a straw. Furthermore, when tackling a piece the teen takes a meticulous approach, singing it line by line at a deliberate pace to ensure each note resonates.

“I think when people listen to opera, they are most impressed with the high notes but every other note is just as important,” Aaralyn continued adding that she repeated the process multiple times until satisfied, a practise that can span several days until muscle memory sets in.

The translation of a piece, particularly from European languages, also poses a challenge due to Aaralyn not being fluent.

“Pronunciation, is also a tough one so I would have to speak the words before I sing them, especially German.”

Additionally, diet plays a crucial role in maintaining vocal health. Days leading up to a performance, the singer avoids coffee, spicy, cold, and dairy foods, as well as overly sweet or fried items – a challenging sacrifice. Her go-to choice however is hot honey tea.

Despite her passion for opera, Aaralyn’s aspirations extend beyond the stage, as she is looking to go to the United Kingdom next year, to further her studies in hopes of becoming a clinical psychologist. 

“I hope to join some opera productions when I’m in university. The operatic voice is one that develops and gets better with age, and I still have so much to learn, so I’ll definitely still be singing in the future as a hobby,” she said. – Wardi Wasil

Aaralyn during a performance. PHOTO: Aaralyn Tan Wen Sze
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