Hubert Burda Media

A chat with opera singer Alvin Tan

The baritone tells us how he went to the US to study business, but found his true calling on the first day there.

Did you ever think about getting formally trained in singing?

“I was a very shy kid and no one knew I loved to sing or could sing. It was also rare in the 1990s for a kid to study voice. The thought of it crossed my mind, but I brushed it aside, even after the ‘A’ Levels, when I would choose what to study. I mean, what would someone with a voice degree in opera do in Singapore after graduation? So I took the practical route and applied for Finance and Accountancy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

What happened on your first day at school?

I went to Champaign two weeks before school started. I was on my bike checking out the campus, when I rode past the music building and heard this beautiful soprano voice singing something in Italian. I was mesmerised and had to check it out.

The music building is one of the most handsomely detailed classical building on campus. I went onto the second floor and located the soprano voice. It was coming from the studio of Professor Cynthia Haymon (internationally renowned for her role of Bess in Porgy and Bess’. I peeped in and saw an African-American lady teaching a female student how to sing. They were making all sorts of strange noises (which I now understand as experimenting with different resonances). I knew at that moment that I can and must start studying voice.

How did you persuade the music professors to take on a non-music major?

On the first week of school, I went again to the music building and I remember very vividly knocking on every single door, talking to the professors and hoping they would take me into their studio. I went back a few times to be sure that I had spoken to every voice professor. Prof Cynthia Haymon’s was the last door I knocked because she was always not around during the day. I was waiting outside her studio as she was conducting a class with a group of students.

She came out to have a quick chat. She asked me if I had any idea why I wanted to learn to sing and what my goals were. I told her that I wanted to study voice so that in a few years I could audition for the Chicago Lyric Opera. I really had no idea what that meant at that time. She smiled and invited me into her studio and introduced me as her new student who is a “business major from Singapore who wants to sing in Chicago Lyric Opera in three years”. She made me sing a few scales and “Amazing Grace” in front of her students. It was the first time I sang in front of a group of people. Nerve-wracking but worth it! She told me right after that she would teach me. So I studied as a non-music major with her until I completed my business related degrees before continuing with voice officially at San Francisco Conservatory of Music on a full scholarship.


Alvin Tan will be performing in Johannes Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 presented by ADDO Chamber Orchestra on 18 August 2017 at 8pm at the Victoria Concert Hall. Tickets available through Peatix.

Find out more about Alvin Tan in our upcoming September 2017 issue of Prestige Singapore.