The Esplanade, which opened in 1912, has come a complete circle, seemingly owing to its modern construction (which is still in its early stages). The Theatres on the Bay was built in 2002 to a chorus of brickbats regarding its architecture and price, yet it has won over audiences with its broad artistic offerings. It’s also gained a following thanks to its looks, which have gradually grown on people because of their resemblance to Singapore’s tropical favourite, the durian.
The Esplanade is Singapore’s de facto national performing arts centre. It came onto the arts scene at a propitious time, replacing demolished and decaying performing arts venues while paving the road for future ones. Other famed performing arts buildings that preceded the Esplanade include the demolished National Theatre (1963-1980s), Kallang Theatre (1970s-present), and the University Cultural Centre (2000-present). In 2002, more performing arts spaces opened – including the Drama Centre (2005-now), Marina Bay Sands theatres (2010-now), and the re-built Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall (2014-now).
The Esplanade debunks the misconception that art is a high-brow speciality, with its annual in-house presentation of 3,000 shows – 70% are free. It has opened the arts to the general public, with events and festivals designed for them such as Huayi, Kala Utsavam, Moonfest, Pesta Raya, and even cult fan favourite Baybeats, which has given a stage to local artists.
The establishment of the Esplanade also signalled a significant cultural and social shift in Singapore. The late Ong Teng Cheong had suggested building a national-level performing arts centre as early as 1989. Construction began in 1996. President S R Nathan opened the Esplanade in 2002, during his term of office.
The Esplanade was designed as a genuine purpose-built performance site, with a theatre and concert hall by Russell Johnson, the renowned acoustician. He was the architect of many outstanding performing arts centres around the world, including New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center, Canada’s Centre in the Square, and Brazil’s Sala Sao Paulo among them. Time Magazine has praised Johnson’s design of the Esplanade complex (concert hall and theatre) as one of the finest in the world.
The Esplanade may be a cutting-edge structure, but it is important as a national performing arts centre. It has had a profound influence on the local arts scene, as well as the 5-cent coin of the just-issued Third Series coins. It is an accessible arts organization that aims to bring the performing arts to the general public by offering comprehensive programs in many different art forms, some of which are non-ticketed and others of which are reasonably priced.