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Arts lover and lawyer Toh Weng Cheong is a pioneer in the field of opera in Singapore. As Chairman of the Singapore Lyric Opera since 2005, a company which he co-founded in the 1990 with Leow Siak Fah, Choo Hwee Lim and Lim Yau, he has been responsible for bringing the art form to the wider audience in Singapore, and building a bona fide scene for the genre over the past 30 years. Major productions Toh has helped produce to date include Puccini’s Turandot (2008), La Boheme (2011) and Manon Lescaut (2012), and Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier (2009) and Salome (2011).
Born in Selangor, Malaysia, in 1940, Toh’s first experience of the stage came in secondary school where he performed minor parts in school Shakespeare productions. His first taste of opera began at home when a British neighbour, who was returning to the UK, passed on his opera record collection to Toh as a gift, sparking his interest in opera music.
In 1960, Toh enrolled to study law at the University of Singapore (now National University of Singapore). During his freshman year, he shared a room with an aspiring tenor, who had landed the lead role in the Music Society’s production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Toh’s roommate rehearsed arias in their shared room, giving Toh an up-close experience of operatic singing. Intrigued, the budding lawyer volunteered as a crew member for Dido and Aeneas. This fired his passion for opera, and he went on to volunteer for more productions, gradually learning how to produce an opera.
In the late ’60s, Toh went to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to watch a production of The Student Prince, which starred Leow Siak Fah. The pair met, becoming comrades in their love and passion for opera. They would go on to produce—and in Leow’s case, perform in—many operas in the region.
In 1985, the duo, together with Choo Hwee Lim and Lim Yau, staged their first opera production Die Fliedermaus, and went on to produce a production every year for the next five years. In 1990, they established the Singapore Lyric Theatre (now known as the Singapore Lyric Opera), Singapore’s first performing arts organisation dedicated to Western opera, and put up their first official production, Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), in 1991. Toh managed fundraising events and helped out in administrative and front-of-house duties, and also chipped in backstage as part of the crew.
Since then, Toh and the Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO) have become known for their philosophy of supporting and nurturing Singaporean talent as well as their high performance standards. Believing in creating opportunities for Singaporean singers to perform on stage, Toh and his directors have contributed immensely to the growth of the opera scene and talent in Singapore, such that SLO now boasts its own chorus and orchestra that are indispensable in its productions. Supplementary to these but equally as important, SLO also nurtures the younger generations of opera enthusiasts through its youth and children’s choirs.
Toh and his directors and supporters see their work with the SLO as a labour of love, aiming only to put up quality opera productions as they see a need for a cosmopolitan city such as Singapore to have a respectable opera company. With the efforts of SLO, the opera-going audience in Singapore has grown in size and also across ages, and are also more knowledgeable and savvy.
In 2005, Toh became chairman of the Singapore Lyric Opera. The same year, SLO had its first sold-out show—Puccini’s Madama Butterfly—at the Esplanade Theatre. As testament to SLO’s efforts and to the progress Western opera has made in Singapore, Madama Butterfly sold out its entire run.
Besides devoting his time to opera, Toh is actively involved in Singapore’s legal scene and the world of volunteerism, and has received awards for his contributions for his public service. Toh is currently also a practising lawyer at Low Yeap Toh & Goon, a Justice of Peace, and chairman of the Criminal Law Review Board as well as that of the Citizenship Committee of Inquiry. In 2010, he was conferred the 25-year Long Service Award by the Ministry of Home Affairs for his service to the Citizenship Committee of Inquiry.
Born in Selangor, Malaysia.
Attended Methodist Boys’ School, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Attended Victoria Institution, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Attended University of Singapore (now National University of Singapore), graduated with Bachelor of Laws (Hons).
Coroner, Magistrate, State Counsel and Deputy Public Prosecutor, Singapore Legal and Judicial Service.
Lieutenant, People’s Defence Force (Volunteer).
Judge Advocate, Singapore Armed Forces.
Received the Singapore Armed Forces Good Service Medal.
Chairman, the Citizenship Committee of Inquiry.
Received Pingat Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Medal).
Co-founder, Singapore Lyric Theatre (now Singapore Lyric Opera), with Leow Siak Fah, Choo Hwee Lim and Lim Yau.
Received Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star).
Singapore Lyric Opera stages its inaugural production Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) at the Victoria Theatre.
Partner, Low Yeap Toh & Goon.
Member, Board of Visiting Justices.
Member, Military Court of Appeal, Singapore Armed Forces.
Justice of the Peace.
Referee, Small Claims Tribunal.
Member, Maintenance of Parents Tribunal.
Vice-chairman, Moral Home for Disabled Adults.
Received Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Lintang) (Public Service Star [Bar]).
Member, Maintenance of Parents Tribunal.
Chairman, Singapore Lyric Opera.
Vice-Chairman, The Arts Consultative Panel.
Chairman, Criminal Law Review Board.
Published Building Social Space in Singapore.
Magistrate, Subordinate Courts.
Received the 40-year Long Service Award, Criminal Law Advisory Committee (Review).
Received the 15-year Long Service Award, Board of Visiting Justices and Board of Inspection.
Received the 25-year Long Service Award, Citizenship Committee of Inquiry, Ministry of Home Affairs.
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.