Kit Chan, aka Singapore’s original national treasure, may have declared during the SG50 National Day Parade that she’s taking a long break from singing. But you can still catch her and her power pipes at the Esplanade Theatre this month. After 11 years, Kit reprises her iconic role as misunderstood monarch Empress Dowager for the fourth and last time in the popular local musical Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress.
8 DAYS: You’ll be returning as the Empress Dowager for the fourth staging of Dick Lee’s musical Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress. What’s it like going back to a role you’ve played four times over 15 years?
KIT CHAN: On the first day of rehearsals, I was very surprised by how I was still very moved by the show. I was afraid that I’d get tired of it. Maybe ’cos 11 years have gone by, but there were many parts that would still make my hair stand. It was like meeting a very old friend that I still feel a lot for.
How have you been preparing for the role?
I had to be in a good place physically, vocally and emotionally. So I tried to exercise more and eat clean. I stopped taking chilli, and fried or cold stuff. That always helps ’cos doing nine shows a week is really jialat. Fortunately, I play a smaller role than I did previously. In the last three runs, I played my role all the way from when she was a concubine to middle age. This time, [Malaysian actress-singer] Cheryl Tan is playing the young imperial concubine. So I can’t complain. There’s no way I could have done the whole thing myself. It’s really very siong (physically demanding). Even now when I see Cheryl playing the concubine, I think, “Oh my god, I used to do all that?”
What’s it like behind the scenes of a musical like Forbidden City?
Chaos. Every time there’s a scene change, people are dashing around doing quick costume changes, grabbing this and that. I have one scene — just one, thank God — where I’ve to literally sprint all the way from one end of the stage to the other, and then come out looking very calm and dignified. Normally, we’d tell everybody to clear the path prior to the scene. There’s so much discipline involved. There are so many props and people — I think there are almost 30 cast members — and you don’t want to bump into people or take others’ props by mistake.
Any onstage boo-boos?
All kinds of stupid things have happened to me. There was once my co-actor’s sleeve got caught in my wig. I could feel he was trying to pull it out and my head was [getting pulled backwards]. I had to hold on to my hair while still trying to look dignified and he had to yank his sleeve off. But then part of my wig was falling off. That’s the good thing about teamwork — some people saw it and told the hairstylist. So the moment I got backstage, he was already there waiting to fix my hair. There was another time I went on stage wearing red silk pajama pants without my skirt [overlay]. We wear many layers of clothing and I forgot the outer layer. The amazing thing was nobody seemed to notice and I didn’t realise it until the middle of a song where I had to lift my skirt. And I was like, “Eh, so weird, I don’t feel my skirt.” Then I looked down and saw my pants. My heart just sank. I became so self-conscious all of a sudden. I think I had another 10 minutes on stage. That felt so long. I just wanted to get off stage. It was horrible.
What’s one thing you learned on the job that they never taught you in school?
How to take care of myself, like what I can or cannot eat. For me, it’s no chilli. That’s something I learned the hard way. When you fall sick, you cannot perform well and you let yourself and your audience down. That’s why I take so many precautions. I’m very demanding of the people around me too. Both my manager and I take Vitamin C every day [during this period]. We carry masks and antiseptics with us. If anyone is not well, we make them wear a mask. Some people may think that’s going overboard. But I need to know I did everything I could and if — touch wood — I still fall sick, at least I know I tried.
Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress runs until Aug 27 at the Esplanade. Tix from Sistic.