Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay
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The Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay is an arts centre built on reclaimed land in the Marina Bay area. It features a 1,600-seat Concert Hall, a 2,000-seat Theatre and some smaller performing arts venues. The Esplanade also contains art installation spaces, a library, retail units, restaurants and cafes.
The idea for a performing arts centre was first mooted in the 1970s. In 1989, the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts, chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Ong Teng Cheong, recommended the construction of the performing arts centre. By 1993, a company (now named Esplanade Co Ltd) was set up to manage the centre, and a master plan formulated.
In 1994, the architectural schematics of the building were exhibited to the public for the first time, and the centre named Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. The plans for the Esplanade, patterned after the Sydney Opera House, were unveiled by Brigadier-General (BG) George Yeo, the Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts.
The idea for an arts centre was warmly welcomed by various sectors of Singapore society. For example, calligrapher Pan Shou wrote a poem in Tang-style verse to express his hopes for the centre. The architects also took into account views from the arts community by holding three dialogue sessions with them. They noted the concerns from each group and tried to accommodate them. For instance, ballet dancers requested non air-conditioned rehearsal spaces while outdoor spaces were provided for outdoor art installations.
Nonetheless, the building design that BG Yeo unveiled drew some flak for being unattractive. The proposed model consisted of two ovoid-shaped buildings covered by unadorned glass spikes. Among some of the unflattering phrases used to describe it were “ugly concrete blob” and “marshmallow blobs.” The building was jointly designed by DP Architects from Singapore and Michael Wilford and Partners from the United Kingdom. Criticisms about the aesthetic qualities of the building abated after its opening and locals often referred to it as “The Durian” after a popular fruit in Singapore.
Construction of the Esplanade began in 1998 and was completed in October 2002 at a cost of S$600 million, fully financed by Singapore Pools and the Singapore Totalisator Board. The Esplanade’s Concert Hall was inaugurated by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra on 11 October 2002.
The Esplanade’s two main performing arts venues are the Concert Hall and the Theatre. The Concert Hall seats 1,600 people, and has an acoustic system designed by prominent American acoustician Russell Johnson. An acoustic canopy hangs above the stage and can be lowered to preserve top acoustics for smaller audiences. The Theatre follows the traditional horseshoe shape of European opera houses and seats 2,000. The four-level Theatre also features Singapore’s largest stage.
The two smaller performing spaces in the Esplanade are the Recital Studio and the Theatre Studio that seat 245 and 220 people respectively. The Theatre Studio may be configured in several ways and features adaptable staging, lighting and sound systems. In addition, the Esplanade offers outdoor performing venues, private function rooms and a rehearsal studio. Also housed here is Singapore’s first performing arts library, named library@esplanade. A mall within the Esplanade houses retail, lifestyle, and food and beverage outlets.
Impact on local arts scene
A 23-day performing arts festival marked the opening of the Esplanade in early October 2002. More than 1,300 performers from 22 countries took part. The opening was attended by President S. R. Nathan, who set off a firework and pyrotechnic show. As early as five years before completion, the Esplanade had already set up a public website to drum up interest. The 73 ticketed and 600 free performances during the festival were attended by more than one million visitors.
With an eye towards the human resource requirements of the Esplanade, 20 scholarships were awarded by the Singapore Arts Centre Company (now Esplanade Co Ltd), starting with two awards in 1994. With the opening of the Esplanade, more Singaporeans began to consider arts and arts administration jobs as viable economic opportunities. The 1990s saw some professionals leaving high paying jobs for administrative jobs with small arts groups.
There were some concerns that the centre would be unable to sustain public interest. However, since its opening, the Esplanade has provided performing arts space regularly for high profile events such as the annual Singapore Arts Festival and the Singapore Sun Festival.
Events programming at the Esplanade incorporates artistic traditions from both the East and the West. The New York Philharmonic Orchestra and London Philharmonic Orchestra are some of the most well-known Western groups that have performed in the Esplanade. Artistic endeavours from the East, such as plays inspired by Kuo Pao Kun and the Malay Simfoni Layer Perak (Symphony for the Silver Screen), have been staged at the Esplanade.
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The information in this article is valid as at 2011 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.