Q&A with Tian Hui Ng

For Tian Hui Ng, going digital has meant rethinking everything he knows about conducting. Find out how the Music Director of “Alice in the Pandemic” changed his techniques to bring Jorge Sosa’s music and Cerise Lim Jacobs’s libretto to life online.

How has your work as a music director changed since everything became digital and distant? 

The public often thinks of the most visible part of the work that a music director does — the physical act of conducting. But in this digital moment, that is often the least relevant part of a conductor’s skill set.  

We train for years to acquire a form of gestural communication that allows us to signal in real time, or even ahead of time, musical direction and intent, in addition to keeping time and coordinating musicians. With the challenges of latency in digital communications, gesture over video has not been a reliable means of getting musicians to play and sing together. We use click tracks for synchronization. We’ve also had to develop new work flows, utilize secondary means of communication — like verbal description and metaphor instead of gesture and visceral feel, and employ other workarounds to compensate for the loss of the more efficient means of communication that conducting as a profession has evolved over the last few centuries.  

More than ever, I miss the immediacy of communicating through gesture, but I’m grateful for the learning this has all generated, and for a renewed focus on musical ideas, timbre, structure, and materials. 

Do you find your style has changed from when you work in person?  

I’ve worked hard to find ways to ensure that, despite the challenges of the online environment, I create a safe space for our cast and orchestra to realize our joint artistic vision, and to do our best work.

In order to do that, I’ve had to reckon with the impact of the pandemic on all of us. While we prize efficiency in contemporary rehearsal practices, it has become obvious to me that we needed to start almost all sessions with a basic check-in (aka chit chat) before we begin. In person, this could have been accomplished by a hug, a handshake, or a smile, small acts of kindness like a coffee for a tired colleague, or a knowing smile. Online, this all has to be much more linear in time, and more deliberate in order to create a healthy and welcoming virtual space for creative work. 

How are you collaborating with the theatrical director and the artists, especially since you won’t be conducting the opera live?< 

This is such an intriguing question! One of the first things I did was to arrange for a virtual coffee with our director. I felt it was so important for us to establish a relationship, a foundation of aesthetic understanding and stylistic congruence, before we embarked on the rehearsal process. For me, this is more than a look at the storyboard, and getting lost in the details of the technologies that we need in order to make this show possible. There is an infinite level of envisioning that stage directors and music directors have to do in harmony. Getting the relationship right at the start allows us to go beyond what is explicitly stated in meetings, and experiment in rehearsal with intuitive understanding.   

What is a moment in the show where you see your own experiences reflected?  

I was just making dinner tonight and I found myself singing some of the White Rabbit’s music. The words by Cerise, and Jorge’s setting just so perfectly encapsulates my feeling in that moment, “Time is elastic. Stretching, interminably.”  

I think this pandemic, and its enforced physical isolation from family, friends and colleagues has been hard for so many people. One of the consequences has been a strange warping of our perception of time. Wasn’t it just yesterday that we talked about putting this opera together? No, that was back in March. Wait, that’s no time at all for a new opera from ideation to production, but it also feels like an incredible amount of time together already! Did we or didn’t we just do an impossible amount of work? Which edit are we on? Which version are we using now? Did we really already record it all 10 times? Or was it 30 times? How does it all feel like the first time? Did I rehearse with the orchestra yesterday? Or was it last month? I often feel like the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s original! 

So, yes, as I was making dinner tonight, there was a delicious blend of déjà vus, but also of bubbling anticipation. Time feels incredibly elastic right now!