Kit Chan On Playing The Last Chinese Empress

Art & Design

August 21, 2017 | BY Hashirin Nurin Hashimi

The singer-actress reprises her role as empress dowager Cixi for the fourth time in the latest restaging of musical Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress.

Many know Kit Chan as the voice behind one of Singapore’s most beloved national day theme songs, Home. But the prolific singer-actress is also well known for her memorable roles on stage in such musicals as Snow.Wolf.Lake, December Rains and Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress. The latter, one of Singapore’s most successful musicals, has seen Chan take on the role of empress dowager Cixi a total of four times, including in its latest restaging at the Esplanade Theatre, where it was first staged in 2002, till August 27.

The story of the last empress of China continues to captivate audiences more than a century after her death. So formidable was the empress that it took three actresses, each depicting the different stages of her life, to tell her story. Young Malaysian actress Cheryl Tan plays a young Yehenara, the imperial concubine; Chan is the embattled Yehenara; while Filipino actress Sheila Francisco takes on the role of the empress dowager.

Cheryl Tan plays the young imperial concubine, Yehenara

Wrapped in the political intrigue of China’s Forbidden City, the epic tale of dark secrets, whispered rumours, love, betrayal and power is told through the eyes of Kate Carl, an American artist who was commissioned to paint the empress’ portrait, taking audiences through the life and times of Cixi—from her rise to becoming empress, to the fall of the empire.

Chan enthuses, “Even though I’ve done the show so many times, I’m still moved by the material. You may have seen it once or three times, but you have to see it again. For me personally, I may have seen a show multiple times but each time I’m like, ‘I didn’t even remember that part’. Because when something happens, it happens so fast.”

Helmed by the original creative team comprising Dick Lee and Steven Dexter, who worked in collaboration with the late lyricist Stephen Clark, the epic musical co-presented by the Singapore Repertory Theatre is brought to life with stylised sets and stunning costumes. The cast includes West End and Broadway star Earl Carpenter (Les Misérables), Broadway star Steffanie Leigh (Mary Poppins), as well as Singapore’s very own Sebastian Tan (Broadway Beng).

Chan shares how she has grown into the character of the dragon lady the fourth time around and why this time she is more concerned about enjoying the ride.

West End and Broadway star Earl Carpenter plays English journalist George Morrison (left), while Broadway star Steffanie Leigh is American artist Kate Carl (right).

This is the fourth time you are playing empress dowager Cixi. How is it different from the first run in 2002?
Kit Chan (KC) 
The first time was 15 years ago. For one, I think the maturity really matters. I was so much younger then, so when I played the more mature empress dowager (and I played her character from age 15 to 50 years old), I call it play-acting. When you are way out in terms of age, you have to pretend because you don’t actually know. Now, it’s a lot more natural when I play the older woman because you don’t have to act old. This time, I felt that I could be a more well-rounded character.

How did you prepare for the role this time?
KC I think it’s a lot more organic this time. The previous productions, especially for the first one, there was a lot more preparation—I had to read different books, do research. The second time, we tweaked the show a little, and every time after that there was something new to learn. However, this time, it was the most untouched. I didn’t want to over prepare because I knew the material so well. So all I asked of myself was to be physically and vocally fit, be very Zen about it, and ease my way through. There was a lot less tension and a lot more enjoyment.

Did you discover anything new that you never noticed before in the last three productions?
It’s very funny because when I watch Cheryl play a young Yehenara—it was the first time I’m watching it so I’m like, ‘Whoa, that’s so nice’. I didn’t realise there were so many nice songs. If I can discover so many new things, I’m sure the audience will too.

Cheryl Tan, Kit Chan and Sheila Francisco each depict the different stages of the last empress of China’s life

You have collaborated with Dick Lee on a number of projects, including the well-loved national day theme song, Home. What is it like working with him? Any dream projects you would like to work on together?
KC The funny thing is that Dick and I is that we don’t hang out or anything like that, but yet for some of our best works, we've collaborated together. I’m one of those people who don't really yearn or long for things; I just enjoy what I have. Moreover, with this track record between Dick and I, I think it’s best to leave things alone and the best things will happen. Somehow, it’ll just happen; there’s a kind synergy between us.

What do you remember about working with the late Stephen Clark?
KC I agreed to do this show probably in mid-2016 and I was thinking, ‘I want to see Clarkie again’. The next thing I heard was that he passed away late last year. I was quite sad. You see, Clark and our director Steven Dexter worked together for so many years. They were a very good pair. As Dexter can get very impatient, Clark was always his balance. He was always calm, always sweet. When Dexter went crazy, Clark always knew how to calm him down. I was thinking, “Oh no, what’s Dexter going to do?” But I think age has done Dexter a lot of good. He has mellowed down and often times when we reach a point where we’re unsure, he’ll usually go, ‘What would Clark say?’ That’s so sweet. I would like this show to be a tribute to Clark.

Images: Singapore Repertory Theatre and Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay