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Lights On: The Story of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Insider accounts of how the arts centre came to be


Published: 2 Dec 2022

Time taken : >15mins

Find out what it takes to create and sustain Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay in the Lights On exhibition at the Esplanade Concourse. Through the accompanying Lights On self-guided audio trail, available at various locations around the centre, listen to prominent Singapore artists and cultural workers share their perspectives on well-loved spaces. Here are a sampling of their voices and stories.

On the arts centre's location

The Singapore government decided to build a national performing arts centre to address the lack of purpose-built theatres for a growing arts scene, with the intention of making the country more culturally vibrant. Arts administrator Juliana Lim, who headed the planning team for Esplanade from the mid-1980s to early 1990s, shares early milestones such as how Marina Bay beat other locations like Orchard Road to become the site of the proposed national arts centre.

All about architecture

Though affectionately nicknamed the Durian by Singaporeans today, Esplanade’s cladding of aluminium sunshades was actually supposed to resemble a veil of leaves, and the centre was initially marketed as a lantern in the park. Juliana Lim, who played a key role in the planning and management of what would become Esplanade, and architect Koh Seow Chuan share more about how the design for the centre took shape

The early challenges

The government’s decision to build the two large venues first and defer indefinitely the construction of mid-sized venues in the original design brief upset the arts community. Many Singapore artists felt they could not create works of a scale to fill what would become the Esplanade Theatre and Concert Hall. The arts centre’s first CEO Benson Puah looks back on his early challenges on the job, which included a mid-1990s clash with Singapore’s drama doyen Kuo Pao Kun over the government’s decision.

Former Esplanade CEO, Benson Puah

Spaces for free performances

The initial Esplanade team led by Benson Puah decided to carve out other small spaces in and around the centre where performances could be staged, so that Esplanade could stage different types of performances, including free performances for the general public. One of these spaces was the Esplanade Outdoor Theatre. He shares why he held firm against government sceptics in the late 1990s in going ahead to build this theatre.

Performing in the Esplanade Theatre

Staging Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress at the 1,948-seat Esplanade Theatre during Esplanade’s 2002 Opening Festival was a major turning point for the Singapore Repertory Theatre, says its Artistic Director Gaurav Kripalani. Actress Siti Khalijah also describes exactly how it feels to perform to an audience of thousands from this very stage.

Actress Siti Khalijah in <em>Rosnah</em>.

New horizons for different art forms

With the premiere of Marco Polo and Princess Blue – A Symphonic Epic at Esplanade Concert Hall during Esplanade’s Opening Festival, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) expanded the creative possibilities of Chinese orchestral music. SCO Music Director Tsung Yeh shares more about this milestone moment, his affinity for the Concert Hall, and how Esplanade changed the game for Singapore performing arts.

The turning of public opinion

Alvin Tan, the Artistic Director of Singapore theatre company The Necessary Stage, talks about the evolution of the relationship between the arts community and Esplanade.

How a visual arts space came to be

Jendela became Esplanade’s dedicated visual arts exhibition space with some encouragement from celebrated arts educator Joseph McNally. Get the whole story from Esplanade’s former CEO Benson Puah, and hear from artist Wang Ruobing about how Jendela—and Esplanade’s other visual arts spaces—invites artists and curators to think out of the box.

Unconventional spots for performances

Singaporean singer Joanna Dong knows every nook and cranny of Esplanade pretty well, and she says the Roof Terrace is one of her favourite spaces in the centre. Find out what makes this spot special to her, and hear more about her experiences of other unconventional performance spots in Esplanade.

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