Island Aria: Hitting All The High Notes

The Edge Options, September 2, 2023

It is not hard to see why the idea of spending a weekend on a tropical island is the epitome of enticement. Malaysia's climate is made for soaking up the sun and frolicking in crystal-clear, warm seawater. Add to that a backdrop of lush greenery and vibrant flowers complemented by superb cuisine (and a sybaritic spa treatment or two) and you've got yourself a perfect recipe for bliss.

Lovers of classical music, however, can look forward to all that and more when Pangkor Laut Resort launches its inaugural Opera in Paradise weekend scheduled from Oct 20 to 22. Guests will be treated to three world-class acts while ensconced on the paradise island that is set along the Strait of Malacca and an easy three-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur.

With Pangkor Laut Resort's 30th anniversary looming, the Yeoh family, which owns the property as part of its global hospitality chain under the YTL Hotels unbrella, decided it was time to revisit and rekindle memories of the private island destination's musically charged opening.



"I'd always had a dream for Luciano Pavarotti to sing in Malaysia," says Tan Sri (Sir) Francis Yeoh, 69, executive chairman of YTL Corp Bhd. "So, when we were getting ready to open Pangkor Laut way back in the 1990s, I asked my brother Mark to see if we could get him."

Then at the height of his fame and popularity, the larger-than-life Pavarotti was used to singing for massive audiences. To paraphrase 1990s supermodel Linda Evangelista, he wouldn't get out of bed for fewer than 10,000. So, to put things in perspective, even if Pangkor Laut Resort had been filled to maximum capacity, the audience would certainly be nowhere near the numbers usually commanded by the flamboyant tenor. His legendary Hyde Park concert in London in 1991, for example, drew a crowd of 150,000 while at least half a million gathered on the great lawn of New York's Central Park for his open-air performance just two years later. In short, to engage the greatest tenor of the 20th century for a command performance on a small but perfectly formed private island in Malaysia in 1994 would have been nothing short of a miracle.

"I was busy readying the resort for opening at the time," says Datuk Mark Yeoh, Francis' youngest brother and executive director of YTL Hotels. "And to be honest, while I like music, opera really is more my brother's thing. All I knew about Pavarotti then was that it's not another brand of bread," he jokes, referencing the popular Malaysian coffee-flavoured bun called Papparoti. "But wisecracks aside, my brother-in-law thankfully knew of someone who could connect us to him."

In complete contrast to London and New York, the big man with an even bigger voice from Modena duly arrived at Pangkor Laut Resort in March 1994 to perform for a private audience of just 200 - albeit comprising only the great and good. Malaysia's then prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was present to officially launch the resort, as witnessed by the region's movers and shakers. "We didn't have the whopping numbers he was used to but we did promise him a full house... which he got. But you can imagine, even with every seat filled - set up on the resort's tennis courts - the applause, however enthusiastic, would have sounded like mere raindrops in comparison to the thunderous claps he was used to receiving. Still, Luciano sang every song with gusto and was truly a professional in every sense of the word. He also fell in love with Pangkor Laut Resort and performed O Paradiso in dedication to it. That was the start of how we became friends and why, to this day, I remember him so fondly.

"To be honest, I have not fully gotten over the loss," continues Francis, referring to Pavarotti's passing from pancreativ cancer at the age of 71 in 2007. "Luciano's death is still very raw, and honestly, no one has touched me the way his voice and music have. If you ask me about tenors and sopranos today, Angela Gheorghiu, of course, is an old favourite of mine. But if I were to look at the new talents, I must say that I am impressed by [Italian tenor Vittorio] Grigolo and [Maltese tenor Joseph] Calleja. These are the two I'd name."



Eight years after Pangkor Laut Resort's grand opening, Pavarotti returned to the little Malaysian island again - this time to open its Spa Village, a dedicated resort-within-a-resort where only adult guests may check into its idyllic overwater villas daintily set on stilts while being treated to daily wellness therapies inspired by the region's healing traditions. To this day, travellers may also consider booking the resort's largest suite, named in the tenor's honour. Spanning 2,604 sq ft, the two-bedroom villa is set high up on the island's hilly terrain and offers unrivalled views of the surrounding sea and dense rainforest.

By this time, of course, Pavarotti and the Yeoh family were firm friends. Having regularly sponsored classical concerts as a form of giving thanks since 1994, it was only natural that YTL Corp would look to him once more when it wanted to host a musical celebration in 2003 after successfully acquiring Bath-based water and sewerage utility company Wessex Water from Enron, beating out several other strong contenders. "We wanted to say thank you to God as well as the people of Bath, England," Francis points out.

This time, Pavarotti didn't come alone. Together with Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo - all of whom had popularised opera as part of the world-famous Three Tenors, bringing the art form to the mainstream like never before - the trio treated a joyous crowd of 40,000 to an unforgettable night of music at the heritage city's Royal Crescent. Likewise, when the conglomerate reached its 50th year in 2005, it staged a musical celebration in Sentul Park, KL, featuring English tenor Russell Watson accompanied by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.

"We see these concerts as a form of thanksgiving - to God and the people. We've been hosting such celebrations for some time but, as the years went by, everybody just got busy. And of course, Luciano had passed away by then, so we didn't revisit opera for a long time. Our last major musical event was in Singapore to celebrate our investment in PowerSeraya," says Francis, referring to the YTL Concert of Celebration 2010 with Andrea Bocelli at the Botanic Gardens to mark its flagship investment in Singapore's energy market and where the then Singapore president S R Nathan and Temasek Holdings CEO Ho Ching attended as the evening's key dignitaries.



On opera being his preferred musical genre, Francis explains: "To me, it is an art form that represents the best a man can give, right? I mean it in the sense that opera doesn't come naturally [to the human voice]. It is an advanced singing style that takes great dedication and years of training. To be a tenor or soprano, you need to be able to deliver impressive and thrilling high notes with a shining timbre. You also need to be able to hold those notes, turning them into a melody, a song... and not a scream or shout. To be blessed with such a voice is also a gift from God. Remember how the Bible tells us God rejoices with us through song? That's why they say angels sing and why we worship Him with song in church on Sundays. If you flip to the Book of Zephaniah 3:17, it says, 'He will joy over thee with singing.' So, if you belive in God or have faith, singing is very spiritual and forms part of our soul. This is why I consider opera as the apogee of this art form."

Spirituality aside, Francis also shares how opera is able to convey the depth and breadth of human emotions. "Beyond life and death, morality and temptation, opera's themes are weighty and I find them all very interesting and deep in meaning. I honestly don't know how and when I fell in love with opera but I suppose it must be from my mother's (Puan Sri Kai Yong Yeoh) influence. She 'fed' me with a lot of Mozart when I was young. That is probably why my siblings and I are good in mathematics," he quips, referencing the "Mozart Effect", a study that proved how listening, even passively, to the Austrian classical composer increases a student's IQ score and ability to perform spatial-temporal tasks.

When asked if he plays the piano himself, Francis admits, "Very little. I learnt whatever I know from playing by ear. I didn't have the discipline for lessons, sight-reading and all that. But once I started listening to classical music and then progressed to opera, there was no turning back. I mean, once you've listened to the arias of Puccini and Verdi, you'd agree that there's nothing quite as melodious, am I right?"



On the upcoming Opera in Paradise weekend at Pangkor Laut Resort, Francis gives due credit to his brother. "Mark wanted to revive music on the island and I thought it was a great idea. Like I said, everyone got busy. But it is good to bring back concerts and celebrations after Covid-19. The timing also works well, coming out of this darkness into such sensational light. So, when he asked me to contact [classical flautist Andrea] Griminelli, who is a great friend of mine, he thought it was an excellent idea too."

The celebrated soloist was part of a star-studded line-up of musicians, including Sting and Roberto Alagna, who all came together in 2008 to honour the first anniversary of Pavarotti's death in an epic tribute charity concert at the renowned archeological site of Petra, Jordan. Now, with Griminelli on board as Opera in Paradise's musical director, guests will be assured of a weekend to remember. Francis also voices out how he hopes it will be an annual event, perhaps even becoming a fixture on the national arts and culture calendar.

"Mark has worked it all out with Andrea and already told me he wants it to be held year on year. I am glad Pangkor Laut is the chosen venue and the whole YTL board is also more than agreeable with the idea. I want it to be a regular gathering where you bring family and friends to enjoy world-class opera and music, good food and good hospitality."

"The idea for Opera in Paradise came about after a trip last summer to Modena, Italy," Mark adds. "I had gone there to eat at Massimo Bottura's restaurant and being in the place of Pavarotti's birth will definitely remind you of the great man. So all the memories came flooding back, which got me thinking: Now would be a perfect time to reactivate opera in Pangkor Laut."

For the inaugural event on Oct 21, Griminelli will be joined by Belle Voci, a double act starring Emily Burnett and Sophie Rowland, and Juilliard-trained tenor Michael Austin. And just like in Petra, Opera in Paradise will partly be a tribute to Pavarotti, with whom Griminelli worked several times, starting from when the renowned tenor invited the then 25-year-old flautist to perform alongside him at New York's Madison Square Garden. Following the concert will be sunset cocktails and a special dinner experience set amid the island's beautiful seascapes and rainforest. And equally important, beyond mere enjoyment, a charity drive will run concurrently, where funds raised will be directed towards Hospis Malaysia, a local charity that is focused on making palliative care accessible to all.

Supporting the arts is also par for the course for Yeoh and YTL. After all, klpac in  Sentul Park was developed with YTL's generosity while the company is on the board of Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, to which it donated €1 million after finding out its struggles as a result of funding cuts. Francis himself enjoys the rare honour of being a non-Italian invited to sit on the august institution's steering committee. The Roman performing arts house holds great sentimental value for the tycoon due to its legacy of having hosted the world premiers of many great operas, including Cavalleria Rusticana in 1890 and Puccini's Tosca in 1900. "I was sad when I heard about their plight but now the Teatro dell'Opera is thriving and I an glad we could play a little role in that. I remember thinking when I visited that this was where Puccini himself could have sat so long ago... and it was an overwhelming thought. For all the big words out there like corporate governance and ESG, a corporation should give back! It is something one has to do," Francis stresses.

As music transcends age and gender, we take the opportunity to quickly ask whether any of his five children and 15 grandchildren are following in his music-loving footsteps. Francis chuckles, recalling "how they used to run away as young kids when I forced them to sit down and listen to music with me. But now they don't mind. They especially like Handel's Messiah. As for the grandchildren, most of them play the piano so, yes, we are constantly exposing them to classical music, which is something you really ought to to while they are young. So actually, the Opera in Paradise weekend is a great event to bring children to. I mean where else can an entire family enjoy world-class music in such a spectacular yet relaxed setting?"

Sounds like music to everyone's ears.