While the rest of us were watching Sesame Street at the age of three, Tan Wei Tian was busy kickstarting her career in Teochew Opera and becoming the youngest in the game.
What started as quality time with her grandma and watching Teochew Opera performances quickly turned into “how can we nurture this blooming interest.” The National Arts Council found Wei Tian a Teochew opera teacher and the rest—as they would say—is history.
Now, Tan Wei Tian is a sixteen-year-old Secondary 4 student at Nanyang Girls High School with a whopping thirteen-year career as a Teochew Opera performer, having graced the stage in Singapore and abroad, totaling over 51 shows.
When she’s not hanging out with friends, listening to Bruno Major, knitting, or partaking in other DIY activities, the Singapore Tourism Board’s ‘Passion Made Possible’ ambassador is preparing for leading roles and winning accolades like the Singapore Opera Orchid Award in 2016 by the Singapore Opera Institute, and the Young Achiever’s Award by Nan Hwa Opera in 2018.
BAZAAR Spoke to the young artist about her life behind the scenes, hope for a “dying craft,” and what’s on the horizon.
What is most challenging character you’ve had to play?
It would have to be Meiying from 梅英表花 as I had to do many tricks including juggling both my fan and handkerchief while wearing a headdress which weighed half a kilogram. This also includes singing and jumping around on stage because the character had a very mischievous and playful personality.
When you’re close to production and also having to juggle school, CCAs, friends, and family—what does an average day look like for you?
A normal day for me includes having lessons in school until 3pm and then going for my CCA which is Chinese Dance. Then I have to rush down to practice at Nam Hwa nail about 9 or 10. However, when I have a large scale production, it’s usually scheduled during the school holidays so I’m not so tired and it doesn’t clash with my academics.
How does being defined by your experience in Teochew opera impact your own self-image?
Opera plays a huge part in my life and I might not be where I am today without opera. It has taught me life lessons and shaped me to be a better individual. Opera has taught me to be calmer and composed as I am an extrovert who is very outgoing. Opera has also taught me, through watching performances and performing myself, how I should be thankful for all the achievements I have accomplished and to continue to work hard for everything.
How does your unique hobby and subsequent fame affect your relationships with your schoolmates?
At first some of my friends may think its a bit weird, but after some time most of them are very supportive of my passion and some even come for my performances to support me.
Many people classify Teochew opera as a “dying art” but do you have faith in its survival?
I definitely have faith that Teochew opera can successfully be passed down through generations. Teochew opera will survive because there are many organisations and entrepreneurs that are working very hard to help companies like Nam Hwa to keep the traditional art alive. There are many more passionate people just like me who love opera and want to keep it alive.
What do you think the younger generation would enjoy about watching Teochew opera?
Watching Teochew opera is like watching a prehistoric drama, just that it is live, more dramatic and sung in a different language. I think they would enjoy the beauty of the songs and the elaborate costumes.
You’ve mentioned before that while you’ll never stop performing Teochew Opera, you may not pursue it professionally. So what do you have your sights on pursuing professionally?
I am still contemplating whether I want to pursue opera as a career or leave it at just my passion and hobby. Because Teochew opera is not as easy to understand and appreciate as compared to modern dances and songs, it will take a lot more effort, promotion and support to make it my chosen career. Alternatively I would like to do something related to solving crimes and investigation.