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Leow Siak Fah

Pioneer of Western Opera in Singapore.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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If you have a love for the arts, don’t be afraid of making it a passion. It will make your life so much richer. Give it all you’ve got. Don’t go halfway. And when you have succeeded, realise that there are young people who are going through what you went through, so be very generous with your time and mentorship.

Leow Siak Fah, born and raised in Malaysia, was known as a pioneer of Western Opera in Singapore. A Western-Opera lover and a successful businessman, he established himself over the decades as a serious amateur opera singer, director, producer and presenter through the three pioneering Western Opera companies he founded—the Liberal Arts Society in Kuala Lumpur in the early ’60s; Singapore’s first Western Opera company, the Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO) in 1990; followed by OperaViva in 2008. With OperaViva, founded together with playwright-poet and librettist Robert Yeo and composer John Sharpley, he created Singapore opera featuring local narratives and music by Singapore librettists and composers.

Leow Siak Fah was born and raised in Malaysia where he got his first taste of the stage starring in a school Shakespeare production in 1955. He was also an avid listener of pop songs, but movies starring popular tenor Mario Lanza soon introduced him to opera music. These experiences growing up would come to influence his life significantly.

As a young man, he studied in London for a period of time. While there in 1956, he attended his first opera Madame Butterfly, and since then, he never looked back and went on to bigger things in opera, becoming a performer, producer, director and presenter.

After his studies in London, Leow studied law at the University of Singapore and upon graduation, was called to the Malaysian Bar. While back in Malaysia in the early ’60s, he founded the Liberal Arts Society in Kuala Lumpur and directed, performed in and staged several operettas and works of musical theatre. Later on, he took private voice lessons and travelled to London and Rome to be trained by renowned Hungarian singer and coach Vera Roza and Italian tenor Angelo Marenzi respectively.

After relocating to Singapore, Leow established himself as a businessman as well as a serious amateur opera singer. His early involvement in Singapore productions included 1982’s landmark multilingual The Samseng and the Chettiar’s Daughter, which starred Leow in the lead role of The Samseng and Alex and Jacintha Abisheganaden as The Chettiar and his Daughter—staged at the 1982 Singapore Arts Festival. He also performed in, produced and directed many operas for the National University of Singapore Society (NUSS) and the National Theatre Trust.

Encouraged by the small but passionate band of fellow opera enthusiasts he met in his experiences with NUSS and National Theatre Trust and keen to create more performing opportunities for opera amateurs, Leow founded the Singapore Lyric Theatre (subsequently renamed Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO) under the auspices of NUSS in 1990) with Toh Weng Cheong, Choo Hwee Lim and Lim Yau. This was Singapore’s first professional opera company and aimed to promote and present Western Opera in Singapore. Funding for the company in its early days came from Leow’s own pocket and he headed the society as Chairman for many years while producing and directing most of its productions and performing in major tenor roles. He also invited many Filipino and other Asian opera talents to perform alongside Singapore performers in SLO’s productions and initiated collaborations with several Asian opera companies.

With and outside of SLO, he directed The Merry Widow in Penang and Ipoh, Gounod’s Faust for the Singapore Arts Festival and Tosca in Chengdu with the Sichuanese Opera Troupe. He also produced the first Singapore Western-styled opera, Leong Yoon Pin’s Bunga Mawar (based on a libretto by Edwin Thumboo), Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puccini’s La Boheme, Il Trovatore (in collaboration with the Philippines Symphony Orchestra) and Carmen.

In the late 2000s, Leow stepped down from his role as SLO Chairman. In 2008, encouraged by new SLO Chairman Toh Weng Cheong and together with composer John Sharpley and playwright-poet Robert Yeo, he established OperaViva, Singapore’s second opera company. It aimed to complement SLO by focusing on early (baroque) and contemporary opera, operettas and musicals as well as works by Singapore and Asian composers and librettists. John Sharpley serves as OperaViva’s artistic director while its main librettist is the poet Robert Yeo who in 2004 wrote Fences, an opera set in tumultuous 1960s Singapore and Malaysia.

Leow continued to serve as director and honorary advisor to SLO. In 2010, at SLO’s 20th anniversary gala featuring highlights from twenty operas, operettas and musicals, he gave a spirited reprisal of roles he had sung in his younger days such as Don Jose (Carmen), Count Danilo (The Merry Widow), Tevye (Fiddler On The Roof) and The Student Prince.

For his contributions to opera in Singapore, Leow received the Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star) in 1996, the Montblanc de la Culture Arts Patronage Award in 2000, the Champion of the Arts Award in 2003, and the Arts Supporter Award in 2012.

Apart from the arts, Leow had over 50 years of experience in the insurance industry. He was the executive Chairman of the international insurance establishment, Citystate Management Group Holdings Pte Ltd, and founded many insurance companies in several countries.

Leow did not see any distinction between his life in insurance and in the arts. He believed in pursuing his passions to the fullest, and he found great pleasure in seeing an opera audience rapt with attention and enjoying themselves.

On 14 Apr 2015, Leow passed away from illness in Germany at the age of 75.

Timeline

25 Jan 1939

Born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

1953

Sang on Rediffusion’s Talentime.

1955

Graduated from St John’s Institution, Kuala Lumpur.

1956 to 1960

Enrolled in The Chartered Insurance Institute, UK.

1956

Junior typist, China Insurance Company.

1961

Founder, Liberal Arts Society, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Lead tenor, Lehar's The Merry Widow, Malaysia.

1966 to 1970

Graduated from University of Singapore with a Bachelor of Laws (Hons).

1967

Performer, University of Singapore Society’s The Night of the Iguana, University Cultural Centre.

1970

Called to the Malaysian Bar.

1980

Member, Arts Resource Panel, National Arts Council.

Member, Esplanade's Users Advisory Group.

Member, Advisory Committee, LASALLE College of the Arts.

Lead in The Samseng and the Chettiar’s Daughter, Singapore Arts Festival.

1984

Soloist, International Festival Chorus, World Trade Centre Auditorium.

Performer (as Tevye), Fiddler on the Roof.

1985

Producer, Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus.

1987

Chairman, Citystate Group.

Producer and performer, La Traviata, National University of Singapore Society.

1988

Chairman, Cultural Sub-committee, National University of Singapore Society.

1989

Producer and lead (as Prince Sou-Chong), Franz Lehar’s Land of Smiles, Victoria Theatre.

1990

Founded Singapore Lyric Opera with Toh Weng Cheong, Choo Hwee Lim and Lim Yau.

1991 to 2007

Chairman, Singapore Lyric Opera.

1996

Received Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star).

2000

Received Montblanc de la Culture Arts Patronage Award.

2003

Received Champion of the Arts award.

2004

Conceived the plot for Fences, written and composed by Robert Yeo and John Sharpley.

2008 to 2015

Founder, director, stage director, tenor, OperaViva.

2009

Performer, Stella Kon’s Peter and Pierre.

Performer, OperaViva’s inaugural fundraising gala, Baroque Pearls and Broadway Gems Fundraising Dinner 2009.

2010 to 2015

Vice-chairperson, Federation for Asian Cultural Promotion.

2010

Special guest performer, SLO Anniversary Gala Concert 20 Years of Grand Opera, Esplanade Concert Hall.

2011

Director (opera excerpts), SLO Opera Ball.

2012

Director and narrator, Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, Singapore Lyric Opera.

Received Arts Supporter Award, National Arts Council.

2012 to 2015

Member, Board of Directors, and Honorary Advisor of Singapore Lyric Opera.

14 Apr 2015

Passed away from illness in Germany at the age of 75.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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